I’m the worst kind of sports fan. Lebron moved to South Beach and I bought a Heat hat. College football looks like Pop Warner, and who cares about baseball teams? I follow pitchers. People often ask me if I’m from Miami, as if enjoying the best basketball in the known universe can only be justified by geographical biography. Nope. I just don’t have any feelings. Rather, I ignore them when I’m attempting to engage with something beautiful, and, for me, watching sports is an aesthetic experience. Competition can serve to supply a dramatic argument, sure, but it’s far from essential and at worst is a loathsome distraction from what matters most: excellence. I swear no allegiance to any team (or nation), and for proof I look no further than the pudding.
And so with listening to new music, my goal is to ignore my feelings. So much discourse on aesthetic judgment amounts to how and why certain music makes us feel this or that way, as if beauty is tantamount to bloodletting. In literary criticism, to judge based on this kind of criteria—Does it kickstart your heart?—is indicative mainly of one era, albeit a big one: Romanticism. But why does all music—and this narrow mindset seems to have been reserved solely for hell’s listening libraries—tend to be judged based solely on the philosophies of Wordsworth and Coleridge? And to a more aggravating extent, Baudelaire and Nietzsche? Probably because music is more abstract than literature, and its craft is esoteric to the uninitiated.[i] But judging music based on the emotional response it elicits is like studying cosmology based on the first chapter of Genesis. Convenient and imaginative, but… No.
Besides, with the occasional exception, music hasn’t compelled me emotionally since I was a little kid.[ii] I remember at seven years old jumping around my parents’ basement, shirtless, wielding a baseball bat, to a well-worn cassette of Appetite for Destruction. What perfect music for a hyperactive kid! It made me feel like a King Kong Baby—hair growing wild, dick pumping like a shotgun—preparing the ritual pagan sacrifice of my big sister to the god of Nintendo. I still love that album, and I’ll even submit to its Bacchanalian persuasions when I’m very drunk or just trying to stay awake while driving. Rock’n’roll can be good for that, kinda like an aphrodisiac or methamphetamine. But music is not medicine—it’s far less useful. In fact, the best of it is completely useless. The only difference between the utilitarian value of music and that of a grenade is intensity. Some folks get a good case of the tingles listening to Chopin, but almost everyone reacts strongly to having his arm blown to pieces.
And music doesn’t have to be particularly good to inspire emotion. For evoking feelings, one Hallmark commercial is more powerful than all of Haydn. Hans Zimmer does a helluva job painting by number to all kinds of movies, but I’ve never heard anything of his resembling an attempt at the composition of actual music. And more power to him, because I’m not entirely sure anything worthy of being called art can be bought or sold. He’s a true craftsman. It is interesting how the most critically acclaimed music tends toward emotional ambiguity. Modern pop music critics still seem to save their highest praises for the opaque stuff—it’s a safe move, an easy sell. Arcade Fire expired right after the release of their first album, but they’ll continue to enjoy critical acclaim if they keep making albums that say nothing and make no significant musical choices. In defense of the critics, it can be challenging to tell the difference between emotional directness and gratuitous earnestness.
But it isn’t at all necessary to pin down the emotional intent of a piece of music. While I was entertaining aspirations of becoming an avant garde composer, I developed a hard and fast love affair with the music of Charles Ives, a taste I shared with my then-mentor John Hilliard. I remember a particular lesson with him in which we discussed Ives’s Fourth Symphony, and I expressed how in the music I heard a sardonic desperation, in no way sarcastic but deeply pessimistic. Ever the Taoist, Dr. Hilliard heard just the opposite—”light” is the word he used, as in a brilliant shining thereof. Which one of us is right? It’s an irrelevant question, and the example serves only to illustrate how a piece of music can be enjoyed from a myriad emotional perspectives, even those polar opposed.
And what of the actual great stuff that some of us just don’t like? Boulez walked out on Stravinsky (and any other composer who dared pen a triad). Schoenberg is far more important than enjoyable (unless you’re me). And there’s this band a lot of people seem to like called U2 who write direct, emotionally simplistic stuff, and it resonates with folks who have no sense of humor worldwide. To be honest, I believe they are the greatest rock band of the last thirty years, but there is nothing in their music that pleases me. If I didn’t consciously turn off my feelings, The Joshua Tree would leave me in a state of constant gagging. But that’s an undisputedly classic album. Is my taste wrong? No. It is irrelevant, along with my little feelings. Because I take criticism seriously, I know all of U2’s great albums like the back of my hand. They are important and worthy of my/our attention. As for pleasure, I’d rather listen to Insane Clown Posse.
But that’s me. What’s your favorite song of all time and why? Maybe the why depends on certain emotions evoked immediately upon hearing the crack of that snare in “Like a Rolling Stone,” or the call of that sample in “Fight the Power.” Or is it the frothy timbre of “Pink Moon”? Or maybe it’s just the Rice Krispies of the needle in the microgroove, hearkening back to a simpler time when playing music was so goddamn complicated. Where is the magic in those disembodied sounds, that they can conjure up nostalgia so vivid you’d swear you were a kid again, smoking grass with your buddies and daydreaming about hooking up with that chick in study hall? The answer is simple:
[i] But it shouldn’t be. Why do schools waste money on band instruments and uniforms when they don’t even teach music theory? Tonal harmony should be learned alongside geometry. I’ll say it again: tonal harmony should be learned alongside geometry. We are currently a musically retarded species, regardless of how many of us can eke out “Frere Jacques” on a ratty trumpet.
[ii] Well, not as much. I once got kicked out of a school assembly because I couldn’t stop dancing to the stage band. My teacher thought I was having a seizure, and then she thought I was just being obnoxious. While almost all music literally moves me, I have since found the toggle switch for my groove thing—now I just fidget, twitch, and mumble incoherently.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.