Last weekend, New York was overrun by new artists. As part of the CMJ music marathon, there was a series of concerts at most major venues almost every night. I’m sorry that I only got to see one performance, but it was a hell of a good one. EMA, led by Erika M. Andersen, took the stage at around 12:30 am on Thursday night.
Now, I don’t know why it’s happening, but I must say that I’m pleased with this trend of powerful women dominating the music industry. Lady Gaga, Adele and Beyonce basically shared the charts in 2011. In the indie part of the world, Robyn, Lykke Li, PJ Harvey, Tune-Yards, and other females are overtaking the scene with their fantastically cool voices and fierce attitudes.
EMA, who has one of the most impressive albums of the year in Past Life Martyred Saints, can definitely join them up on that pedestal. She, like Robyn, has short blond hair and a tall, imposing frame. In concert, her voice can evoke weakness, sadness and anger – sometimes all in the same song – but, in between pieces, she interacts with the audience confidently: she can be amusingly brusque. Her live show was very high-energy, even at that time of night (I noticed her, quite wisely, sneaking sips of coffee), and with such a small audience. She twisted microphone wire around her neck, danced, and gestured along to her biggest hit and concert-closer “California”. It was an utterly engrossing experience. She also, luckily, had some help from her friends – there was another guitarist (no bass, surprisingly), a drummer, and even an electric violist! But EMA has all the presence, as if she sucked up any presence that was lying around in the room. One person shouted, “Why are you so sexy?” at one point. Yeah, I think sexiness is another way to put it.
EMA is worth seeing live, but even if you don’t get a chance to, do listen to her album. It is maddening, twisting, noisy music that is sure to move you.
“I listen to everything except country.”
This recognizable urban teen statement irks me to no end. First of all, he/she probably doesn’t listen to everything – it’s probably mostly pop, hip hop and maybe some techno. Secondly, what’s so wrong with country music?
Now, I don’t really listen to country myself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I uttered that despicable sentiment in a previous phase of life. I find country simplistic and slow; it’s vocally-driven – which should appeal to most pop fans – but the vocalist often has a twang that’s unfamiliar (and therefore unfavorable) to the urban ear. What drives country songs more than voice or guitar, however, is narrative. The lyrics are not only meaningful, but they tell a story. That means you don’t just hear different metaphors for the same exact feeling that peak in yet another metaphor; you have to actually listen, and there’s a climax to the plot.
It’s no wonder that country music is wildly popular among most Americans. Our brains are made to understand stories. That’s how we learn best, and that’s how most information was – and continues to be – passed on from one generation to another. We love certain types of stories, especially stories of love, loss and betrayal. Shakespeare knew this, and wrote classic plays exploiting our pull toward these themes. And Taylor Swift knows exactly what themes draw in teenage girl listeners.
While you may categorize Taylor Swift as just another pop teen icon, she really does differ from most (there was a great profile of her in a recent issue of the New Yorker). While her pretty appearance and her decent voice help make country music appealing to a wider audience, her gift is songwriting. Jody Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone:
“Swift is a songwriting savant with an intuitive gift for verse-chorus-bridge architecture that…calls to mind Swedish pop gods Dr. Luke and Max Martin. If she ever tires of stardom, she could retire to Sweden and make a fine living churning out hits for Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry.”
This is a particular kind of songwriting. It’s not life-changing, and the songs are often interchangeable and unmemorable, but, boy-oh-boy, is it commercially successful! These simple stories are, first of all, extremely relatable. Everyone is familiar with unrequited love, crushes, loneliness…and Swift is especially good at crafting the narratives because they are based on real-life scenarios. She’s young, and she hasn’t had many boyfriends, but she can turn a simple glance or conversation into a song. And don’t all teenage girls make a big deal out of glances and conversations? Connecting to your audience is key if you want to make money from music. And stories are a great way to do that.
Are they a cheap move, though? After all, the musicians that we admire the most can make an emotional connection with listeners with a single chord progression or vocal line, or a perfect storm of instrumentation. I don’t know, but I don’t think so. While Taylor Swift’s songwriting may not represent the pinnacle of musicianship, it still has its intricacies and difficulties.
And I’ll admit, I get a little bit emotional when I hear her line: “Marry me, Juliet. You’ll never have to be alone.” *sigh.*
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats did an interview with The Believer back in 2004. At one point, he was asked about appreciating music ironically, or “as a joke”. Here is his response (passed on to me by my good friend Amanda):
JD: The campy-listening thing, I think, is false. I don’t think that there is any such thing, actually. This happens with age, that at some point you might have told yourself and others that you listened to the Backstreet Boys because it was funny. But in fact, you were enjoying it; it’s just a different kind of enjoyment for you. But I don’t think that ironic-distance appreciation is actually a different or lesser appreciation. I think most of that irony is an attempt to say, “These aren’t exactly my kind of people, and I don’t picture myself sounding like that, but I still like it.” I don’t believe in ironic appreciation. I think if you like something, the core of it is you like it.
While John isn’t entirely clear, I know what he means, and I totally agree with him. In a previous entry, I talked about how feelings of nostalgia contributed to my enjoyment of the NKOTB and Backstreet Boys concert that I attended. Just because nostalgia contributed to the value that I placed on the music, doesn’t make the music any less valuable for me. You see, rewards – from the brain’s perspective – are defined as the things that we are motivated to get, or that we decide to pursue. Vague, right? You bet. But this vagueness allows the valuation process to be flexible. If we based all of our decisions only on things that we “liked”, in the most hedonic sense of the word, then we would probably be mostly inert, just eating food and copulating (and perhaps taking drugs). But we base our decisions on our “wants”, and we can construct our preferences based on various factors besides pure enjoyment, including context, past experience and associations.
So, if you chose to listen to the Backstreet Boys, you’re not listening “ironically”. There is no decision without valuation, and therefore, making the decision to listen means that you must have wanted to listen. And this “want” could have emerged because you like the music, because you want to be reminded of something, or because you (for some reason) want to think of yourself as someone who listens to that music. Of course, someone who listens to Isaac Hayes by himself and then makes fun of Isaac Hayes later is probably enjoying listening to him and then just justifying it by saying that it’s ironic. Sorry, buddy. I don’t believe you, and neither does John Darnielle.
Okay, quick music lesson.
Sound comes in waves. Waves, as you know, are periodic (repeating) signals. They can come in many shapes and forms, but, no matter what, they can always be described by a set of sine waves added together. For those of you who don’t remember high school trigonometry, the graphs of sine waves look like this. They are very pretty, and look like the kinds of waves that you would doodle if you were playing the word “waves” in Pictionary.
Each sine wave has a frequency, which is defined as the number of times the wave goes up and down during one second. The frequency is an important number when it comes to music, since the higher the frequency of any musical sound, the higher the pitch. High notes (like those Mariah Carey can reach) have very high frequencies, and low notes (think Barry White) have low frequencies.
But music doesn’t come in pure sine waves – remember, it comes in waves that can be described by a set of sine waves added together. Without going into the math, I can tell you that each one of these waves has a different frequency. So any note that you hear is made up of one main frequency and several other minor ones. [As an aside, white noise - which is not musical at all - doesn't have a main frequency and minor ones, it just has a bunch of minor ones].
Now that we have computers, we can determine the main and minor frequencies of any note played by any instrument. We can also actually play just the main frequency of any note. This is called a pure tone. The computer can construct the purest possible A note, B note, G note, etc. And you know what, they all sound pretty damn…pure. And pleasant.
But are they interesting? Eh.
Our ears have evolved to (quite amazingly) determine the main frequency and minor frequencies of any sound, because we evolved in a natural environment of extremely unpure tones. So we can find appeal in musical sounds that vary in purity. In fact, think of a violin and a piano playing the same note – they don’t sound quite the same, right? That’s because the frequencies associated with each instrument are just different enough that we can hear the same basic tone, but enjoy the variety that tickles our ears.
So “dirty” tones are cool, but even “dirty” tones can vary in their dirtiness. You see, a typical violin has a main frequency and minor frequency profile that can be calculated. You can then put these into a synthesizer program, and voila – you can produce a synthesized violin sound that sounds just like the real thing! But it’s not the real thing, since violins that come from different manufacturers, that are made with slightly different wood, or that have experienced slightly different levels of humidity all produce different sound/frequency profiles.
So people who object to synthesized music might find that even these unpure tones that mimic real instruments are too pure and therefore, annoying and uninteresting. Personally, I like the sound of synthesizers, and am not very good at telling apart a real guitar from a “fake” one. But then again, I’m not in the business of listening to music played by real instruments very often.
In conclusion, we can probably all agree that hearing a pure tone – one frequency, one sine wave – is not too interesting. But we will probably vary in our ability to tolerate synthesized music, which maintains a real instrument’s frequency profile (but only for the most part).