Can You Hear The Music?: A Series of Questions to Overcome Musical Xenophobia and Techniques to Appreciate Music in Different Ways

A cult is a cult is a cult.

All followers think they are the chosen ones – the only ones who get it and truly understand what their messiah is saying. Admittedly, in a world full of doubt and spiritually vacuous consumption, it is nice to discover something to frame our experiences and it can be a relief to find answers for yourself at that time. But it’s also useful to recognise that we are born to flux and flow, not to stagnate and rot.

Blood, Milk and Blooms

Blood, Milk and Blooms

Solve: Breaking the problem into pieces

If you find yourself hero-worshipping the same artist for a lengthy period of time, I challenge you to ask yourself why. If it’s because the values and inspiration you have an affinity for ring true to your experience, ask yourself what other, better, deeper, more wonderful things are waiting to be discovered. Spending hours inside an art gallery filled with beautiful things is fine for a while, but what’s waiting for you in the great outdoors?

Do you only listen to one or two types of music? Why? What feelings and values do they represent? Have you thought about understanding these in different ways, through different music? Or does your favourite music have the monopoly?

There are always going to bands that you just don’t like. I have many in my shit-list but in my defence, they’re all bands from diverse genres. Regardless of how my bespoke critical faculties limit them from being good, I still recognise that they have value for other people – and that all music in itself is a vehicle for our fundamental human right to express ourselves.

For those of you who have made a particular kind of music a focal point of your existence, it can be easy to forget that other genres have value. Fans tend to gravitate towards scenes, to form ghettoes, to join cults. I get it. Communities are safe, and like ugly ducklings, we can feel like we’ve come home. But what does it say about your need to belong? Is your self-worth dependent on belonging to something for the sake of it? “I care about hardcore but I hate the scene,” said Zoli Teglas. Not only can I identify with that, I can apply it to many of the other scenes I move through (but that is a topic for another time).

Be honest: is there anything about your sub/culture that you don’t like? Is it catty, is it elitist? Is it too-serious or not serious enough? Is it monotypic – made up of a majority of people from the same gender, ethnicity, spiritual affiliation, political persuasion, sexual orientation, class background, and/or lifestyle choice? If so, why? Is it because outsiders find acceptance difficult, and are you part of the problem or the solution? Do you judge people who don’t fit in, and why? Is the fact that they’re not wearing the right uniform really a threat to your enjoyment of the music? And do you realise that everything you profess to rebel against might just be the same shit you are perpetuating in your judgements?

 

Set: Experimenting with content

Listen to music that you hate, and try to find something good about it.

Listen to music you don’t understand and try to find out the appeal.

Listen to aggressive music and feel what arises in your guts – is it a cathartic release of anger? A distillation of rage?  Is there beauty in the ugliness? Maybe you find it ridiculous or maybe it scares you. Does it make you uncomfortable, do you hate it? What does this say about anything you may be suppressing?

Listen to something challenging, perhaps some discordant noise or psychedelic jazz. Does it frustrate you that you can’t figure it out? What does this say about your love for the safety nets of rules and law and order? What do you fear about chaos? What untapped potential lies in that tangled fertility?

Listen to some heartfelt love ballads and some melodic eulogies for the fallen. Are you uncomfortable with how it makes your heart hurt? Listen to the despair and longing in that voice. Do you remember ever feeling like that? Does it make you cry? Is this okay – are you accepting of your heavy feelings? Or do you want to skip the song?

Listen to something mainstream, something not cool in your reckoning, or something the hipsters are hyping up. Are you contemptuous of its formulaic simplicity, of its overtly vacuous overtones? Or can you appreciate that silliness and lightness inspires frivolity and just letting troubles go? Does it make you stop thinking and just move, and isn’t that rad in its own right? Or does there have to meaning in music, does its profundity have to be spelled out and hand-fed to you? What does this say about your lack of imagination? What does it tell you about your need to define art only on your own terms, and not wonder about the myriad of other operating systems out there?

Listen to some politically-charged punk rock. Does the energy sweep you up or do you resist it? Or does it just make your ears hurt? What does this say about your ability to let go, and what does this say about your judgement on the validity of dissenting voices? Does it sound like a battle-cry, a call to arms? Does this inspire you to make a difference in the world, or a lifestyle change? To educate yourself and others? Ian McKay once said“At least I’m fucking trying! What the fuck have you done?” How would you answer him?

Listen to some socially-conscious folk music. Is it just whinging, or might they have a point? Where are they coming from? Do they have a right to express their frustration in a creative way, or only in a way that you see fit? Does this raise questions of how unyielding your condemnation can be for those you don’t understand or agree with? Or does it make you feel guilty that you’re ignorant and apathetic? Perhaps it makes you despair that the world is too fucked up and too far gone. And so, will you turn the song off and ignore the message, or will you have a go regardless?

Listen to some hip-hop. Is it ugly because of the way the lines are delivered, or is it beautiful for its passion? Do the beats make you nod in appreciation, the bass pumping your heart to its own beat? Or is it too repetitive? What does this say about your attention span? If, to you, it all just sounds like bullshit gangster drivel, I would suggest that you’ve bought into the mainstream music industry’s marketing ploy. Dig deeper. Find the real stuff.

What about electronic music – is it exciting, does it make you dance? Or is it just annoying doof-doof repetition? Can you see the value in loud repetitions as a vehicle for ecstatic dance, as a tool for embodied transcendental meditation? Is it not ‘real music’ because it doesn’t utilise the generic holy trinity of bass, drums and guitar? Or is it clever and creative because the artist invents new sounds from recordings and manipulations and distortions? If you think they’re not ‘real’ musicians because they don’t play popular instruments, please consider that many deejays are proficient multi-instrumentalists who want to push the envelope and evolve.

Listen to some authentic music from another sub/culture – one you don’t know much about (yet). Can you get a sense of the people, of the place, of history? If there are vocals and they’re in another tongue, can you intuit a meaning from the timbre and the way the singer releases it to your ears? Do you feel contemptuous; do you think the music is too simple or too strange for you to enjoy? Does this say something about your belief that only your sub/culture’s music has reached the epitome of artistic integrity?

Do you see foreign music as spiritual and moving even if in all likelihood they are just singing about mundane life? Does this tell you that perhaps you romanticise the Other too much? That you look outside for the spiritual, and can’t see it in your own backyard?

If in any of these you find yourself drawn to artists of one gender or sexual orientation, try something different. Does it give you a glimpse of another worldview, a tangible way to dance a thousand miles in another person’s shoes? Do lyrics that are too soft make you uncomfortable? Are you ill-at-ease with your untough side? Why do other lived realities really make you squirm?

Do misogynistic lyrics make you angry or uncomfortable in any way? What about racist or homophobic or other discriminatory language? Listen deeper. Does the artist really believe what they are singing, or are they providing a valuable social commentary by playing devil’s advocate?  Is it just for shock value, to generate controversy? If so, is there any value in that? Can you use them as an example to generate a dialogue about narrow and harmful paradigms? If they are dead serious, would the artists profess these values in the street individually, without the support of an incestuously like-minded band? Would they shout it in a crowd of those they seek to vilify, without the safety of the stage or recording studio for protection? If not, they’re likely just agent provocateurs – too weak to walk the talk.

Listen to music from way before your time. What kind of world did it emerge from? Was it ground-breaking or was it in the spirit of the age? Does it transport you back to an imagined past, or does it make you cringe? Is it surprisingly good, and what does that say about your assumption that your generation has a patent on epic music?

Listen to music your parents love. What was the soundtrack to their youths, and how does this inform your understanding of their lives before you were thought of? What was going down when you were conceived (pardon the pun), and does this put you into context?

Listen to music by very old and very young people. What are they concerned with, and can you relate? What gravity do you give these issues; can other generations relate to your weighty troubles?

Listen to the first album you ever bought. Does it still excite you or does it embarrass you? Why? Listen to the music you loved when you were rebellious, when you first took drugs, when you first made love. How does the music frame your experiences? Are the memories painful or nostalgic? Do you feel like a kid again – carefree – or is your younger self a stranger to you now? What does that say about your complicity in the world’s efforts to tame and to mould you, to clip your wings and to weigh you down with its responsibilities?

 

Setting: Experimenting with context

Do you really listen to music, or do you just use it as background noise – the soundtrack to your life? Can you choose an album and do nothing but listen to it, or do you need to hear it whilst working or exercising, doing chores or socialising? Try it. Put something on; feed it through superior speakers or headphones and just listen until it’s done.

Do you hear things you’ve never noticed before? Is there more to it than you previously assumed? Do you get lost in the layers: the high and low; soft and sharp; shallow and deep? How do they harmonise and fit in, or not? Do you find yourself swimming against the tide and overanalysing it, or do you float in oblivion? What pictures does it paint in your mind, what feelings does it invoke? Can you synthesise this and create your own music in response? Can you draw or talk or write about what you’re holding?

If you don’t usually dance or headbang, try moving and just going with what feels right. What does embodying the music do for your interpretation of it? Do the endorphins add more depth to your enjoyment? Does your whole body feel like another instrument; does the music play you instead of the other way around?

If you usually move, try being still. How does it enhance your listening when there are no other distractions? Is your whole body an extension of your ears? How does being anchored affect your listening? Try the same with your eyes opened and closed, singing along and being silent.

What music do you like to make love to, what do you like to fuck to? Do you prefer it aggressive or ephemeral? What does this say about your sexual expression? What would happen if you changed it up a bit?

If you usually go to gigs with friends or a partner, go alone next time. Is it out of your safety zone? Do you need familiar faces around you, or is your own presence enough? Did you have fun, and will you do it again?

Are you always drunk and/or high at gigs? Try going straight. Does the music sound different? Do you hear new things? Are you still having fun, and can the music be enough? Do you remember more the next day, and does the feeling stay with you longer; does it settle in deeper?

How do you discover new sounds? Through friends, or festivals, or do you do your own research? Do you allow the media to dictate for you?

Do you look at the influences of your favourite artists? What bands inspire them, what is their heritage? Look at their label mates, bands they’ve toured with, scenes they grew out of and bands they’ve come from. Look at their side-projects and collaborations. All music is connected through time and across space.

Who does your favourite version of that cover song you like? Is the original the best? Is the new interpretation blasphemy or is it tits?

Are you fiercely loyal to an artist, a genre, a scene? Can they do no wrong in your eyes/ears? What happens when they say something you don’t agree with?

Do you appreciate style changes in bands, understanding that everything eventually evolves? Or do you resent experimentation, believing that your favourite band’s sole purpose is to cater to your tastes that are stuck in time? Do you love all albums from a particular band, or are you able to wipe the stars from your eyes and be critical of less grounded efforts? Are you suspicious of them selling out, or do you empathise with their struggle between the rock of artistic integrity and the hard place of trying to pay the bills?

Do you get obsessed with an album, playing it over and over and over until you know the lyrics, every tempo change, the ins and outs by heart? Have you ever considered that this takes away its power and mystery, or do you need to have everything all figured out? What does the obsession do for you? Does it validate your worldview? Or does it close you off to other music and therefore other ways of experiencing life at the same time?

 

Coagula: Picking up and synthesising the pieces

We all go through phases: they reflect and are a reflection of our internal states. Musical phases mirror our desires and our values, but surrounding yourself with nothing but reflections of your validations, and staring at your own likeness for too long is essentially just masturbation. Are you self-serving, narcissistic? Are you wanking to your own image?

What phase are you in now, and what does it say about what’s going on in your life? What are you grateful for right now? What kind of person do you want to be, what do you want to change about yourself? Can you open up your ears and your mind? Can you shift your parameters to include different things?

Fuck oath you can. There’s a whole world of music out there waiting to be discovered. Go and play!

– Defender Of The Faith, 03.04.2013

ROLLING STONES – CAN YOU HEAR THE MUSIC?

The Tale of Two Wolves, Decolonised

Intraterra (detail)

An old Christian evangelist is teaching his grandson about life by way of misrepresenting and homogenising American Indian spiritual lore. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is dark and therefore evil (because I believe and perpetuate long-debunked race theories as biological truth, and therefore equate dark skin with sin) – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. These things are bad in my simplistic Western view that categorises all things into binary opposites, and these emotions are never, ever, ever natural or useful or necessary. They are just plain bad.”

He continued, “The other is white and good (because as a privileged white man, I am at the top of the Great Chain of Being and so whiteness is holy and right and true) – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too, because my Eurocentric value-laden paradigm is of course representative of everybody else’s.”

The boy asked, “Why are they wolves?”

The Christian evangelist replied, “Well, they are wolves because even though we have driven wolves to near-extinction with our anthropocentric and ecocidal ways, for some hypocritical reason we still romanticise wolves as noble creatures. Despite not honouring their place in life in practise, their symbolism theoretically elevates an otherwise clichéd story into a good yarn. And so I talk of wolves although I have no knowledge of their true habits, but I enjoy anthropomorphising them into childish constructs of good and evil, to veil my otherwise too-obvious-to-be-authentic American Indian parable. So I suppose the real reason is that they give more spiritual credence to this story than a dog or a cat or a horse ever could.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Well, which wolf will win?”

The old Christian evangelist simply replied, “The one you feed.”

The grandson called bullshit. “Wolves are wild, you senile dickhead. Only domesticated creatures rely on humans for food.”

– Defender Of The Faith, 02.04.2013