Monday, May 01, 2006

A Discussion Elsewhere, Continued Here

Not that he doesn't get enough traffic (and plugs from me), but do go over to Acephalous and read Scott's post on how academics from different fields, backgrounds, etc. can have such similar tastes in music. I am one of those delightfully eclectic academics he mentioned, and I put an embarassingly long comment up there. There are many other interesting comments by Scott's very interesting readers. The reason why I like reading Acephalous is that every post turns into a discussion of theory and somehow he always manages to slip in terms like "Deleuzian" or "Lacanian," of which I have but a very faint familiarity (like one quarter of Critical Theory). And Scott's readers are so incredibly intelligent and well-read. Sometimes, I honestly have no idea what they're talking about. So I like it when I find a post I can comment on, and be a part of. You don't even have to know who Giles Delueze is, I promise!


How did this strange state affairs come to be? Common roots? Were we outcasts all in high school? Does reading too much at too young an age predispose us to love of Morrissey and "alternative country"? An article about Morrissey's wild
popularity in Mexico
claimed that Mexicans love him because of the melodramatic ambiguity of his lyrics.* Is that why we love him? "There Is a Light and It Never Goes Out" moved my adolescent heart via its elegant and articulate bombast. Why did it cause yours to skip a beat?

Why does the answer to that question have anything to do with Theory? I'm not sure. But perhaps we can tease out some sub-sub-sub-cultural distinctions which will account for our apparent similarities in musical taste. Do those who favor theoretical eclecticism tend more toward experimental music? Or do they also have a soft spot for Springsteen's working class epic "The River"? Why (hypothetically) can they abide by Morrissey but not Springsteen?


Not to play the immigrant card here, but I have to say, my musical tastes come wayyy out of left field. I, like you, Scott, had a low and eventually low-middle class upbringing, but I can't say where I started getting better taste in music. It surely wasn't my childhood, in which my older (then teenage) siblings, in their attempts to assimilate, brought home Air Supply, Chicago, REO Speedwagon, Michael Jackson, and Boy George records and emblazoned Pee Chee folders (or was it Mead, whatever). I actually had a Boy George folder to carry my Kindergarten homework in. It was embarassing. The New Wave years were better for me, but I am sure it was disturbing to see a child sing "Whip it! Whip it good!" Fast forward to high school, when I was finally developing tastes of my own not entirely formed by the weekly (and free, we couldn't afford cable MTV) edition of Sooouuul Traiiin! Unfortunately, I went to high school in Orange County, CA...during the height of OC ska and neo-Swing revival. The ska remake of "Come on Eileen" still plagues me. I hung out with kids who listened to really bad R&B and hip hop though. To this day, I like 80's music, punk, and have learned what good R&B and rap is by having lived through the bad.

So how did we, from such different backgrounds, class strata, and the unamed elephant in the room, races and ethnicities all come to converge? My theory is a combination of yours (Scott's) and Rodney's--aspiration and identification.

All through my musically inane childhood, I was at least exposed, to some degree, to what I _should_ have been listening to in addition to what I was already listening to. Every kid, even an immigrant one, grows up hearing about the Beatles. Even if you go to a high school where everyone has appalling taste in music, there's always the salvation of college and the chance meeting of an earnest young man who wants to impress you by showing you an album "that will change your life." There were many ways in which I aspired to leave the meaness and coarseness of poverty behind and become "cultured"--I am a jazz fan and a classical music aficionado--but there are many ways that in doing so, you feel another type of poverty, and a need to reconnect with your "roots" and that sense of loneliness that comes with being torn from within--and so I am also a Wilco fan. And once I got to college and law school, I kept meeting more earnest young men and women who grew up with different backgrounds and incomes and record collections, but with a common sense of nerdiness and loneliness that comes with spinning records in your room by yourself until the late hours. That's when the poetry of the lyrics gets to you. And how you connect to others like you, the other lone wolfs. College is a great democratizing
experience--thousands of heads bobbing to the same song, thousands of kids thinking they've discovered this new and totally different indie band themselves, and the inner cry of "righteous, man" bursting forth from each heart.

Music is whatever moves you, man.

When your comment is longer than the original post, you probably should be embarassed. Still, I consider Scott to be a friend (really! not just virtual!), I figure he'll forgive me, and forgive me for bringing the conversation here (where I am allowed to use a lot of white space). I liked Scott's post for many reasons--what explains the inexplicable? Why do Mexicans love Morrissey? Music is one of the most democratic forms that can transcend national and cultural boundaries--and yet we are surprised when it does. Why the heck is David Hasselhoff so big in the Deutchland? Michael Jackson in Japan? Who knows? It would be nice to find some unifying academic theory. I suspect there is none, since each geographic location is more susceptible to a particular cultural export than another. Yanni may not do so well in Japan, after all.

But I do believe in the power of music to transcend class boundaries. And it is interesting enough to limit the discussion to American divisions in class, race, and ethnicity. How is it that everyone, no matter how recently they have arrived to our shores, knows at least one song by the Beatles? How is it that people of my father's generation can recognize "Besame Mucho" (hey, give me credit, I have the Diana Krall version) from their original bossa nova/Latin music craze days back in the 1960s in Vietnam? And how does a person like me end up liking the following: Berlioz, Mos Def, The Jayhawks, The Who, Jeff Buckley, Django Reinhardt, Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and Al Green? (and that's just a small sampling of my Ipod).

I wasn't a social climber as a kid--but I was a "culture climber" if you will. Any chance I got, I exposed myself to and absorbed other people's cultural recommendations. I was a kid who read books far too complicated for my age just because I knew that they were "the great books" (who reads Madame Bovary at 10?). I was a kid who tried to learn about musical theory since my family couldn't afford music lessons for me and I wanted to know what "allegro" and "adaggio" meant on my CDs. I wasn't a kid who aspired to have the best car, house, or clothes (actually, I didn't really care about that stuff so much), but I did want the best and most esoteric mind and tastes. So in the beginning, many of my musical choices can be explained by the most lemming-like of all reasons: I heard it was good and ought to be liked, and so I said it was good and tried to like it myself. The good thing is, I have a life-long love of classical music that I can finally nurture as an adult. The bad news is, as a child, it made it hard for me to develop my own tastes in popular music. Classical music naturally has an imprimatur of being "good"--having withstood the test of time. The problem with popular music is that there is no authority to tell you what is good and what is not. You have to learn yourself, and there is no aspiring out of it.

But of course, as a teen, eventually you start hating yourself for that kind of snooty aspirationalism. So you read anti-establishment texts during your teens like "On the Road" and "Howl" and start viewing music not as a tool for escaping the meaness and coarseness but as some unifying anthem. The best thing for a person aspiring to leave their 80's power ballad youths behind is college. The Great Democratizer for exposing students to people of different backgrounds and tastes. (especially if you go to a stae school like I did) Everyone there is an outcast for a different reason. I'm not saying I learned what a blini was or tasted caviar there (I learned just last year and refuse to eat caviar), but I did learn more about indie rock and classic rock. Through some bands, you get exposed to other bands. The greater distance you put between yourself and your former life of poverty and coarseness, the more nostalgic you can be about it. That life becomes material to you, quaint anecdotes of "back in the day," much like material to be drawn on in writing a song. The more you leave your working class values behind, (feel my soft, uncallused hands), the more you feel yourself the betrayer. Springsteen begins to speak to you. Alternative country, with its long poetic waxing on themes of love, loss, and the loneliness of the road--no, you are not in Wichita, but you are there in spirit, man.

And once in college or grad school, among faces of different races and backgrounds and classes, you may not see the same lived experiences--but you can sometimes see the same loneliness. Who, at that age, didn't identify with Morrissey? I'm not saying that college is this wonderful rainbow of hope and happiness, but it can do great things to those who come ready to receive them. Those, who like me, wanted to be exposed to a different intellectual life and thereby become a different (better) person. College is the great democratizer, allowing the child of immigrants working 2-3 jobs to become a lawyer--and a lover of The Jayhawks, too.


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