How Conceptuality Destroyed My Taste In Music

My girlfriend has a much better taste in music than me. I keep being reminded of this fact as I look at compilations of year-end "best albums" lists and realising that I've heard at most a couple of albums off any list.

It's not that my girlfriend has listened to more of them, she doesn't like the majority of new music, but at least she has the capacity to. Me, I've lost the ability to listen to albums properly, like I used to. And it's got nothing to do with losing touch with the current music climate, I may really be more updated than ever, but somehow my listening for absolute pleasure and listening uninterrupted to whole pieces of music has completely dissipated.

Part of it is information overload and my general championing of functional over absolute music. But mostly, I blame conceptuality.

See, my girlfriend's taste in music is very literal. It's not that she has no understanding of what makes music good - far from it, she can point very specifically to features she likes. No, the thing is that she likes what she likes - doesn't try to put it in systems of thought, doesn't worry about where its coming from a great deal, and ends up picking music she likes to listen to because she likes the lyrics, or melody, or the feel. If she finds a track she likes, she's got no problem listening to it over and over again until she's tired of it - after all, it's a good track, isn't it?

Me, I listen to music to make frameworks of understanding in my mind. I barely ever listen to music repeatedly or even deeply, preferring to listen to a lot of music superficially. My greatest music experiences are usually epiphanies, not moods, and I have a hard time listening to music without being able to put it into context. Conversely, I often revisit music I've previously scorned after learning more about it and suddenly finding it wonderful.

It didn't use to be this way. Circa 2001 I was just as literal as she is now, but reading, radio-making, blogging and academia has made me approach music in a totally different way. I still derive enormous amounts of pleasure from it, but somehow, I have a niggling feeling I no longer quite get what makes music good. Or rather, I can see it in other people's picks, but I keep getting excited over music that's not really very good at all.

Lucky I have my girlfriend who can select good music for our common daily life...


Anonymous said...

Doesn't it come down to whether you listen to music for pleasure or for identification? I know when I was like 12, I still listened only for pleasure and I was frequently amazed by how good it sounded, how it made me feel.

By 15 or 16, I was listening for identification purposes. Music had become a weapon against my surroundings. It became intellectual, because the artists that weren't a part of my war was by default the enemy. And I had to begin drawing charts and analyzing that shit.

Music writers often talk about how music makes them feel like they're 16 years old all over again, "pure adrenalin", and so on. I call bullshit on that. If you in your youth are retarded enough to make music some sort of ammunition in your life, I don't think you really can stop thinking about it in that way.

Birdseed said...

Carl Dahlhaus, a music theorist I'm reading for school at the moment, claims that the aesthetic qualities of music are lost if you look at it too closely. He's all for a systemic understanding of music and music history, but he practically begs in his book to please exclude the masterpieces and just appreciating them as art.

There's lots of things wrong with the idea of a canon, but there he may actually have some sort of point. If only we knew what the masterpieces are...

Anonymous said...

Yeah but really, who fucking cares about those "masterpieces"? Do you care?

I used to care about music that sounded like nothing I'd heard before. I hadn't heard much when I was 14 so really that meant most music.

Then, I cared about music me and my friends liked. After that, I was riding for music that was the anti-thesis to everything my life was.

Now? A mixture of those, I guess. I do believe there is "high art" in pop music, absolutely, and by that I mean music that seems to be out of it's time, and therefore defining of its time.

But that stuff is usually scooped up and given props later, by old people like us. Discuss.

Birdseed said...

It would have to be our own masterpieces, obviously.

But even then, I think I'm mostly regressing according to your scheme - I used to think there were great albums when I was 20, stuff other people had defined for me mostly. Then I started looking beyond, at the "anti-thetical" stuff too I guess, eventually finding people with similar tastes to my own. Now, I just get kicks out of finding sounds no-one has heard of before, hence the Bhutan obsession among other things.

I still haven't finished with the systemic understanding project. I'm not sure that's ever going to be done.

Gavin said...

One of music's greatest abilities is that it can overcome the mind/body divide so easily... Sounds like you are reifying that divide in favor of the mind! Think deeply but listen to your ears, not your sense of novelty.

Birdseed said...

Maybe... I'm not so sure, because at the same time I've moved from "listening music" to "functional music", which tends to be all-"body" and where that aspect is often blunted on repeated listenings. Novelty - body shock - can be the same thing.

No, if anything I've lost the emotive attachment to music (as per the originally Platonic scheme of mind vs instinct vs emotions). Not to what music represents or how it's created, but to its actual emotional content.

Comb & Razor said...

I know the feeling all too well... After years of conceptual thinking, though, I believe I am gradually getting back to enjoying music on a literal level.

The interesting thing is that when I was in my heavy conceptual period, my more literal-oriented friends thought I was a complete killjoy. "Do you ever just enjoy music?" they'd ask... It was hard to explain that there was a certain joy inherent to thinking about music. I don't think there's anything wrong with that...

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