“You listen to some horrible music.”
“What do you listen to?”
Some of us listen to music others consider weird, strange, and just plain different music, but we’ve listened to it for so long that it doesn’t really bother us when they say it’s horrible. Who cares what anyone thinks of the music we play for our entertainment? We might have when we were in high school and college, but most of us left those insecurities behind us when we entered adulthood. We didn’t have anything to do with writing the music or the lyrics of these songs, so when people try to call us out in front of groups, we regard it as equivalent to Yo-Mama jokes. They’re the silly, inoffensive jokes we make about one another at parties and family get-togethers. We don’t make fun of someone’s appearance, their financial stability, or their children. No, we try to find a harmless subject on which the other has little-to-no vulnerability, and we drill down to the core. One guy lands a quality shot, the recipient hits back, and everyone keeps firing someone runs out of ammunition. It’s part of a fun little game we all play with one another.
Repetitive jokes like these only leap the fence from meaningless and harmless to competitive with repetition. When she first said, “You listen to some horrible music,” we laughed as hard as everyone else. We felt no need to respond. She could’ve been a little more creative, but it was a decent shot, and it was funny.
We’ve found some jewels in the rough over the years, but we know that an overwhelming majority will never enjoy the music we do. It’s a thing, or a thang, we’ve known for so long that it doesn’t really matter to us anymore. It used to matter a great deal to us. We used to try to discover bands before any of our friends did, and the excitement we felt when we found such artistic musicians was almost physical. If the recipients of our recommendations grew to love the music, and they attributed it to us in some manner, it was thick and delicious gravy. That pursuit probably started us down these weird, strange, and just plain different musical paths, but whatever the anthropology of it was, when we returned to the chart-topping, traditional music that most enjoy, we were left with, “Is that all there is?”
She would get such mileage out of this joke that she sought any strategic use of it that she could find. People would laugh, big belly laughs, because they knew about our listening habits. We laughed too, for years, until we thought about her music. “Wait a second,” we said. “What do you listen to?”
“Oh, I was just joking with you,” she said.
“I know you were,” we said, “but if you’re going to get in the ring, what you got?”
No one cares what kind of music she enjoys, because she doesn’t love music. It’s background noise to her. It’s what she turns on when it’s a little too quiet. She doesn’t ache for brilliant music the way we do, great songs don’t alter her mood, and she’s never used the word masterpiece with emotional exclamation points. She lets a DJ select her music for her. Okay, but to what station does she tune? She prefers trite and simplistic tunes that are as far from difficult and challenging soundscapes as songs get. Her favorite music involves corporate production, computer enhanced vocals and a professional songwriter composing and editing lyrics. We have no problem with any of that on the surface, because we know 90% of the population prefers that music. They don’t seek out unique chord changes and complicated structures that no one else considered before. She’s not a musician or a music aficionado. She just wants a hummable beat that she can strum on her steering wheel. She doesn’t demand artistry from her favorite artists, and we suspect that most of the music we love involves more minds than we’ll ever know. Yet, her repetition suggests that there is some sort of psychological game going on that she’s won, because we considered this game so silly that we’ve yet to fire a shot.
That’s where the “What do you listen to?” snark was born. It’s fine if you crack on our music. We don’t defend our music, because we don’t think it needs defense, and because we find it silly to defend something we had no hand in creating. The only reason we said anything at all was because she spent the whole game on offense, and if we were going to find out if she had any game at all, we thought we should test her defense.
Someone stepped into her silence and stuck up for her. He was a gentleman who saw a woman flopping on the shore. She wasn’t embarrassed, and we didn’t really make her look bad, but he apparently felt the need to fill a void she couldn’t.
He preferred important artists who created important music. He preferred cultural scribes who wrote meaningful music. He preferred musicians Rolling Stone told us that we’re supposed to like. As he spoke, we thought of all the articles that centered around the theme, “Why it’s okay to like this artist now.” This guy preferred to listen to all the martyrs, the prophets, and philosophers of music who told us what to think. We told him that we sought our philosophical mainframe in other venues. He asked where, we told him, and we both viewed the other’s path to philosophical truths as simplistic.
“[This artist] has witnessed carnage and mayhem firsthand,” he said, “and he writes about it. He writes about tragedies, foreign and domestic, and he does so with heart-wrenching and illustrative prose and poetry.”
“It’s poetry without a punchline. He writes subjectivity as if it’s objectivity.”
“But he’s been there,” he said in a tone that suggested we don’t get it. The you-don’t-get-it crowd gets a lot of mileage out of that line without saying it. The power lies in the inference.
“On the yellow brick roads provided by the undersecretary of tourism development.”
“But he writes from the soul,” he said. “His lyrics are deep and meaningful.”
“[The artist] regards it as the truth, but it is his truth. He regards it as challenging. It’s his important music. It’s the college thesis paper he never wrote, because he never attended college. It’s his “I’m smart. Not like everybody says … like dumb … I’m smart and I want respect!” moment.”
“This is where you and I differ,” he said, “because I find his lyrics so intellectually stimulating that I consider him important.”
“But did he write it to be important?”
“Why does that matter?” he asked.
“My favorite artists don’t strive for importance in this vein, and when an artist does, it always sounds contrived to me. Did your favorite artist write your favorite important song for the purpose of artistic interpretation, or did he do it to be a star?”
“I doubt that anyone writes a song with the hope that someone, somewhere will consider it important,” he said. “I’ve never written a song, and neither have you, but I have to imagine that it’s so hard to write a song that if you strive for a hit, or the level of importance that we’re talking about, you probably end up chasing your own tail.”
“You can hear it in the song,” we said. “You can hear it in the emotional triggers he uses to evoke and provoke. There’s nothing wrong with it of course, but it doesn’t move the needle for me. Listen, every musician wants to be successful at what they do, but what do they do to get it? I respect anyone who knows their limitations and battles them from within. Do some artists reach a peak of creative brilliance, and they witness the other guy constantly outdoing them? Does this idea that they can’t outdo their rivals compel them to go down the intelligent and important roads? I don’t know. Does the idea that they’ll never reach their creative peaks again compel them to do it? I don’t know, but I can tell you that no musician has ever changed my mind on anything, and I find the never-ending attempts to do so a little tedious at times.”
“So, who’s the music snob here?” he asked.
Our initial thought, after this conclusion of this conversation, was that this man was attempting to turn the tables on us. He chuckled after saying it however, and it was a reflective chuckle that suggested he was laughing as much at himself as he was us.