How Do You Listen?

Filed under: @ 9:07 am

So we were watching Elvis Costello on The Colbert Report last Friday.
Elvis performed a song off his new album National Ransom.
As the song concluded Andrew noted “Well that was a bit of a change for Elvis Costello.”
I asked him what he meant and he replied that the song was more upbeat in general than the majority of Elvis Costello’s works.
Now ignore the fact that, despite what Andrew says, I wouldn’t know an Elvis Costello song if it came up and bit me on the ass, I realized that I had no idea, absolutely NONE, what the recently concluded song was about.

It’s no big revelation that Andrew and I have different tastes in music. My interest in much of what is popular peaked about twenty years ago (and I’ve got some ideas about the correlation between my beginning to ignore popular culture and my beginning graduate school, but I’ll leave that alone right now), Andrew has kept up in trends and in bands and is far more aware of any music than I am.
But how could we have both been in the same room, in the same quiet, low distraction room listening to the same piece of music and have come away with far different experiences?

I think it has a lot to do with our tastes in music.
When I listen to music, especially a new piece of music, I listen…. Well I listen to the music. It takes a long, LONG time for me to be able to parse the lyrics to be able to follow the story, as it were, of the song. If the actual music of the song is unappealing I won’t have a chance to understand the story that the musician is telling. A quick glance at my CD rack shows a lot of The Beatles, Joan Armatrading, Eurythmics, Peter Gabriel, They Might Be Giants, and almost the entire Steeleye Span collection.
And so my tastes in music run towards the upbeat, the simple, the bouncy, the regular of rhythm, or music that is sad and tragic, but has instrumentation that makes it appealing for me to listen to.
Which is, I think, why I have absolutely no interest in rap or hip hop. To me music in those genres sounds like a bad Saturday night in a cheap apartment complex and I can’t listen long enough to get interested in what the musician is commenting on or the story that they’re telling.
The same for punk, heavy metal, and country. There’s just not enough about the MUSIC involved in these pieces to make me listen to the lyrics.

I won’t make any comment on grunge. I don’t like grunge because I hate Nirvana and I hate Nirvana because I lived next door to those over amped little freaks one year at Evergreen when I was studying molecular and cell biology, and organic and biochemistry all at the same time. To me Nirvana is inexorably linked with biochemistry, cell structure, mitosis, and SOO-sie and I will never be able to shake that. Enough ranting.

I have a friend who can’t stand ANYTHING classical. To me that’s like hating vanilla. How can you dislike something that is so patently unoffensive? But I guess she’s listening for the song, or for the story and I’ve got to admit that there’s not much story involved in classical music. At least not any story that’s easy to pick out of the music.
So do you listen to the song or do you listen to the music? And what music do you listen to?

7 Responses to “How Do You Listen?”

  1. Uncle Andrew Says:

    I kind of think you’re selling yourself short here. There is plenty in your music collection that is more than “upbeat” and “bouncy”. Lots of Eurythmics and Annie Lennox songs are quite deep, dark or complex, as are those of Joan Armatrading, Billy Joel, Moxy Fruvous, and Steeleye Span. You listen to Seal, Thomas Dolby, classical, musicals both contemporary and neolithic, plus a ton of other stuff. And if you don’t go out of your way to follow the latest exploits of Trent Reznor, Glitch Mob or whatever final last farewell retirement album Jay Z puts out this month, that’s because (gasp!) you have particular tastes in music that you want to satisfy, just like I and everyone else.

    I think what you tend not to do is to overthink your music, which is why you seem so very different from me. I overthink my music because I overthink everything, from my political affiliations to my choice of breakfast. I like drilling down into music and parsing it for meaning, but at the same time I have a short attention span and can’t handle too much subtlety in my music, which is why opera makes my teeth curl; I don’t want to have to read a book in order to understand a song.

    Unlike me, you seem to want your music to be a companion, while I tend to use it more like a delivery device. Neither method is better than the other; there is no “right” way to enjoy music. Just books, movies, TV. 😛

  2. Valerie Says:

    My most vivid collegiate musical memory revolves around these following eight words, which were repeated over and over and over and over and over until we wanted to kill. Good times.

    “Oh hush…keep it down now…voices carry…”

    (Lather, rinse, repeat)

  3. Uncle Andrew Says:

    Ooohhh, shit, Val, now you’ve done it…. 😮

  4. YakBoy Says:

    There was one of those little micro-blogger memes going around recently that ask you to “Open your music player and set it to shuffle the songs from your full collection. List the first 15 songs that play and don’t lie about the obscure horrible stuff that might play.”

    I did it and this is what I came up with:
    1) These Days by 10,000 Maniacs from Campfire Songs
    2) What More Can I Say by DJ Danger Mouse from The Grey Album
    3) Demon Lover by Steeleye Span from Commoner’s Crown
    4) Get Down by DJ Theo from Summer Clubbing 2
    5) Hellfire from World Of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Soundtrack
    6) Eclipse (Lema & Moor Mix) by Little Wonders from Great Wall
    7) One More Chance by Pet Shop Boys from Actually
    8) Dig For Fire by The Pixies from the Dig For Fire single
    9) Passenger Fever (Peggy Lee vs. Iggy Pop) by Go Home Productions from Best of Bootie 2007
    10) Tuesday Morning by The Pogues from The Ultimate Collection
    11) You Really Got A Hold On Me by The Beatles from Anthology
    12) Don’t Stop The Way It Used To Be (Pet Shop Boys vs. Rihanna) by Dan Mei & Marc Johnce from Bootrospective: A DMF Tribute To The Pet Shop Boys
    13) Simple Things Part 2 by Dirty Vegas from Dirty Vegas
    14) Still The Greatest by Spamtec from Still The Greatest
    15) Effectiveness by Digital Poodle from Work Terminal

    Not exactly a representative sample, but a decent spread. As for the “music vs. lyrics”, all I can tell you is that there are some songs I’ve been listening to for the vast majority of my life that I still couldn’t tell you the lyrics to and some that I’ve had for less than a month that I could. No clue as to what makes one song break one way and one another though. Interesting question.

  5. YakBoy Says:

    And yes, I have a video game soundtrack in my music library. Leave me alone 😛

  6. margaret Says:

    >>“Oh hush…keep it down now…voices carry…”<<

    Come now Valerie, do you not remember…

    "Whip it! Whip it good!"

  7. Valerie Says:


    (And I liked Devo.)

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