Thursday, June 28, 2012

HAH?! - The Aesthetic Appeal of Music

"It also features this great Kanye moment, "Doctors say I'm the illest because I'm suffering from realness/ Got my niggas in Paris, and they going gorillas," followed by a sample of Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory talking about how awesome shit doesn't have to mean anything." - Pitch Fork Review

"Got my niggas in Paris and they goin' gorillas, hah?!" There it is: hah?! Go ahead. Say it. Out loud. It's fun. And there's nothing that summarizes the wonderfully obnoxious platinum-crusted one-percent-ness of Watch the Throne better than Kanye West's go-to ad lib. Hah?! is funny, memorable, annoying, dumb, genius, earth, water, sky-- it's the entire known universe in one impossibly indignant syllable. Nobody knows what it means because it means everything.--Ryan Dombal -Pitchfork, Track of the Year

"Awesome shit doesn't have to mean anything". It is this phrase that I latched onto when reading this review and one which stuck with me. Why do cool things need to have a reason behind them? Maybe there's value in things that appeal at face value. When we think about why or why not we like something, we try to think of reasons for that; that the lyrics are meaningful, that the music sounds good and that the people in the band are good people. But why do we look for answers? I think it's because we like to think that we can justify our taste to others, and maybe a little, to ourselves. But do we need this? Why can't we just like things that appeal to us?

Ultimately, all music does is give you feelings. Music affects you and when we hear it, it makes us feel a certain way that cannot be put into words a lot of the time. We can get close. We can say "oh I like that bass line. The way it sets up expectations and breaks them, coupled with the pitch and timbre, produces an enjoyable experience for me. Then, when used with the guitars that play notes at the same time, produce a harmonizing effect that I really enjoy." Or, if I knew more musical technical terms, I could say, "It was in 7/4 time in the key of A, uses whole note steps, uses rests, blah blah blah". However, neither of these descriptions really give you the feeling of listening to the songs. When someone describes a painting, or a sculture, depending on the piece of art in question, you can sorta get a glimpse into what it's like to be there. Now, as being a person who has been to the Sistine Chapel (which nothing can prepare you for), I know it's not the same as actually experiencing the work first hand. However, you do get some idea into it. With music, that isn't true.

When I read reviews of new CDs coming out, I never really know what it's going to sound like. Despite the reviewers best tries (well maybe that's their attempt), I am still surprised when I hear a CD for the first time. Calling the drums on "Niggas in Paris" gigantic turns out to be really descriptive after I've heard the song. But before, who knows what that could mean? And, more importantly, reading that they are gigantic is nothing close to actually hearing them boom out of your speakers (hopefully with a lot of bass). It gives you a feeling. It makes you feel awesome, larger than life, or annoyed, depending on who you are. But there is a gut reaction there that one can't really explain. A sound engineer can tell you its frequency, height, length, you name it. A musical theorist can tell you if its off key, in a minor key, major key, and so on. But, there is no "if it's in this key at this frequency, everyone will like this beat". You could find something that everyone would hate probably (siren sounding erratic noises come to mind), but whether or not you could find something everyone would like is a different story. People have a gut reaction that can't be measured and differs from person to person. And when you ask people why they like something, there's nothing more really any average person says other than "I like that". "I like that it's raw" or "I like his voice" or "I like that beat". But there really isn't a solid, quantifiable measurement about why one would like it.

This gets down the difference in mediums that language and music occupy. In music with lyrics, we can describe why we like lyrics a lot easier than we can describe why a piece of music is good. I believe this is due to the difference in senses. We use language to frame our world and use it as a way to understand it and classify it. Without language, we cannot move past simple understanding of the world. There was a girl who was found chained in a basement for 17 years and we were unable to get her to move past simple construction of language. Language is not something inherent to us, and our society constructs it. This girl, because she couldn't talk, could not understand concepts, analyze them (using words) and expound upon them. But, we all use different languages to think about the world. I think of the bathroom as "bathroom", the English think "Water Closet" and the Spanish think of it as "Los Banos". There is nothing inherent about any word that lends itself to describing an idea. It is only our agreed upon meaning that gives it authority to describe an object or an idea. When I hear a Spanish sentence that I do not understand, there is no way I can even begin to unpack it. I can't look for anything inherent about it, other than words that coincidentally mean similar things in English or French. But music defies this. A good beat is good no matter what language you speak. And every language is going to have a different way of attempting to describe what they hear and how it makes them feel. But just as "The bathroom" to me is actually "the toilets" to the Spanish, our language will limit us in how we can describe why we like it to others. There is a French phrase that goes "Comme ci, comme ça", which means "a little of this, a little of that". However, they use it in the sense of "How are you?". While "a little of this, a little of that" may translate to "some good, some bad" or "Alright", it doesn't do that in French. It retains itself as a phrase. There is an idea that accompanies saying "Comme ci, comme ça" instead of another phrase like "Bien", even though to us, they roughly mean the same thing. There is an idea that you can't describe, but it's there.

This leads to why you can't describe how music makes you feel. There's a feeling that you get when you hear music. It's something else. Our words can encapsulate our emotions to the best of our abilities, but its like trying to translate from one language to another. There is something lost when trying to "translate" the beats of "Niggas in Paris" to the sentence "Niggas in Paris" rides an impossibly propulsive synth riff and gigantic drums ". It makes sense to us after we hear the song, but that's only because we can go back to our memory and remember what they sound like. If someone were to say, "this song sounds like this", they are using a comparison to illustrate their point. They are asking you to think in the language of music to go back to something so you can actually get a feel of what they are trying to describe. Otherwise, its almost like trying to describe a smell without using the word "like".

So, if all music boils down to "liking" one aspect because of a gut reaction to a certain element of the music, why do we need to justify our taste? Do we need to say "this is better than this" if all it comes down to is a feeling you get when listen? So what if it's Justin Bieber's "Baby" or Sleep's "Dopesmoker"? Different people like different feelings. Some like being active and accomplished and others like being lazy. Some like the feeling of metal, feeling badass, aggressive, pessimistic or angry. Others like pop, feeling happy, sugary, or naive. Others prefer music that's raw, because it sounds like real emotions and they connect with that. Others like refined music because the feeling they get when they recognize an artist participating in artistic tradition is one of admiration. When others hear that same artist doing the same thing, they balk at and ask themselves, "why didn't they think of something new"?

However, intricacies of music genre and taste aside, it all boils down to Kanye West. Does awesome shit NEED to mean something? I say NO. Since all music boils down to emotion, if there is something that appeals to your emotions right away, I say, go for it and like it. There is absolutely room for music that "means something" in what you listen to, but every single thing you listen to doesn't have to mean something. I think some of it should be HAH!. It should mean nothing, and everything. It should be a flash of emotion. One that doesn't have to be described to be appreciated. It should have face value and you should revel in it. It should splash over you like a wave of ecstasy and let it just take you. Screw what anyone else says. I'm gonna like the Biebez, whether anyone likes it or not, because the bass line in Boyfriend slaps.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" -Martin Mull

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