What Wednesday is where I talk about what I’m watching, reading, playing, listening to, etc. Today I look at music–from its wonderful highs with Questlove and Ray LaMontagne, to its terrible lows as a weapon for torture.
What I’m Reading: Mo’ Meta Blues by Questlove I love music for many reasons. One of the best reasons is that it gives sonic vibration to emotion; and often that emotion is joy. Mo’ Meta Blues captures this joy of music more fully than anything else I’ve ever read.
Questlove is the drummer and co-founder of the legendary hip hop band The Roots, who you might know from their 1999 landmark album Things Fall Apart, a powerful neo-soul statement that…ah, who am I kidding. They’re Jimmy Fallon‘s band. That’s how you know them. You’ve probably seen them on your Facebook feed remixing massively popular songs with classroom instruments. And while they’re great on the show–a perfect fit for Fallon’s own childlike love of music–they’re also a historically important group that’s garnered a ton of critical acclaim over the past three decades. This tension–between music that is culturally important and music that is just enjoyable–is a constant in Questlove’s book:
That’s the kind of kid I was, even early on, trying to balance the pleasure I felt in hearing music with the pleasure I felt knowing that certain albums were considered critically superior. (pg. 41)
I feel that so much: I watch all of the relatively unpopular, but critically lauded TV shows and read difficult, frustratingly complex novels. Sometimes it’s tough for me to tell if my taste comes from myself or Rotten Tomatoes scores. (Music is actually easier for me because it’s so emotional. If I can’t connect to it, it’s hard for me to like it, no matter how “important” it is. Which also means I like plenty of awful music just because it makes me happy or moves me. Especially growing up. Like this. Sigh)
Questlove often took this desire to listen to highly respected albums to an extreme growing up: he’d listen to new albums and try to guess the Rolling Stone score; he even papered his childhood walls with reviews of important albums. Even now, while he’s working on an album, he gets a sense for what the album is by visualizing what the reviews will be for it (and he’s usually right!). Which is kind of a startling admission–usually artists that publicly care about reviews are seen as artistically shallow, insecure and only in it for the praise. But I can relate, because I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the Emmys when I’m putting together a big feature story…
Another thing I can relate to: though he grew up playing in a family band and being heartily encouraged in his musical pursuits, his parents eventually began believing that some music was not acceptable. Which, surprise, much of the popular music of the day was considered too salacious:
A few months later, there was this other guy named Prince, and if you wanted to see how dangerous he was, well, just take a look at the cover of this 1999 record. Turn it upside down, for starters, and the title changes from something futuristic and fun, to 666, the mark of the beast. Oh and also the part of the title that’s not Satanic when you turn it upside down, the 1, well that’s clearly a drawing of a penis. This went out on the church wire as something to be worried about, and my mother recognized it as something from my collection. “You have it,” she said. Of course I had it. (pg. 44)
Questlove says that he purchased that album 8 (!) times, each time after his parents found it and threw it out. His dad even went so far as to break the record over his knee in front of him. Looking back, it’s laughable. I mean, this is what they were scared of? But it can be a very serious battle. What kid from even a moderately strict home hasn’t had some of their records (or CDs or YouTubes) thrown out? I still remember the day my CD binder of hip hop albums was found and taken from me in high school. Thankfully they didn’t find my other hip hop binder Because, as Questlove says, whenever his parents said no, he instantly had to have it.
(One of the ways that he hid his music was listening to it on headphones while playing a totally different song on his drums. That’s insane! Try listening to one song and even thinking about another song at the same time, let alone playing it on an instrument. Even if you’ve never listened to his music, that in itself displays a huge degree of skill!)
But I haven’t even gotten to the main draw of the book yet: Questlove’s broad, seemingly endless knowledge of all types of music, and his joyful love for almost all of it. It’s infectious. Every time I sit down to read it, I invariably find myself playing the albums and artists (usually ones around well before I was born) that he so passionately talks about. The whole book is written in such a personal and exuberant style, it’s hard not to get caught up in that joyful love of music. Highly recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in music (parentally approved or otherwise).
What I’m Also Reading: “When Music Is Violence”, by Alex Ross, The New Yorker Now for something completely different. This New Yorker article tackles the complete opposite of the joy of music. Alex Ross traces the use of music as weapon and tool for torture: as far back as the trumpets blowing down the walls at Jericho; to Nazis using happy, upbeat polka music at concentration camps to cover up screams; up to the present with Christina Aguilera being used on suspected terrorists in Abu Ghraib. One of the most powerful (and depressing) arguments the article makes is that music is not inherently good. In fact, that idea has a creepy link with the Nazis:
German thinkers in the idealist and Romantic tradition—Hegel, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Schopenhauer, among others—sparked a drastic revaluation of music’s significance. It became the doorway to the infinitude of the soul, and expressed humanity’s collective longing for freedom and brotherhood. With the canonization of Beethoven, music became the vehicle of genius. Sublime as Beethoven is, the claim of universality blended all too easily with a German bid for supremacy. The musicologist Richard Taruskin…likes to quote a phrase ironically articulated by the historian Stanley Hoffman, who died last year: “There are universal values, and they happen to be mine.”
So, no, classical music isn’t a universal, unassailable gift to the entire world. Ross points out a 2006 psych study into music therapy that found “a suffering person was better served by his or her ‘preferred music’ than by a piece that was assumed to have innately calming qualities. In other words, music therapy for a heavy-metal fan should involve heavy metal, not Enya.” Taste is more important than any inherent qualities of music. Sorry, parents, music from your day is not “better than the crap on the radio now.” In fact, in the 80s the chain 7-Eleven, frustrated with loitering teenagers, found that using classical music as background music outside their stores drove away the kids without any other enforcement. Maybe that’s why “adult contemporary” is so popular in retail. Get those kids with their Pokémon Go and no-money-having out of here! The whole article is fascinating and only a little depressing. Worth a quick read.
What I’m Listening To: Ouroboros, Ray LaMontagne Ok, back to the fun part of music. Ray LaMontagne is a singer-songwriter with a soulful voice that’s been around for a long time. You’ve probably heard this song at a wedding or two. Katie and I went to a concert of his over the weekend that was often wonderful, occasionally weird, and featured one big surprise (for me, at least, because I’m an idiot). Unbeknownst to me, his most recent album, Ouroboros, an album that I’ve listened to and really enjoy, was a collaboration between him and well known alternative rock band My Morning Jacket. So imagine my surprise when LaMontagne introduced his “jacket boys” near the beginning of the concert. It was awesome. They jammed out for 2 and a half hours. Like the album, they gave off a serious 70s jam band vibe, going off on tangents and generally taking their time. So if you’re into Pink Floyd, definitely give the album a listen.