Today, I came across this while reading a Pitchfork interview with the popular dubstep artist Skrillex. As you’ll see, Skrillex posted on his Facebook wall that his favorite song of all time is “Flim” by Aphex Twin (I’ve uploaded this fantastic track below). His fans were appalled by this choice! They ask, “Where’s the drop?”, obviously expecting to hear a thudding bass drop that is characteristic of dubstep music, and some say that they’ve been “put down” by Skrillex for the first time.
Do these disappointed, opinionated fans expect Skrillex to only listen to dubstep? Most people don’t listen to only one kind of music, so why should musical artists specialize in their listening habits? And what is so disturbing about finding out that our favorite artists’ favorite music is not what we expected it to be?
I personally applaud Skrillex’s choice; I think that Aphex Twin’s “Flim”, off of his Come to Daddy EP, is one of the best songs of the last couple of decades. It is electronic (so it doesn’t surprise me that Skrillex came across it), but it has a clear, beautiful melody. It starts suddenly, has a clean progression and it has interesting, varied percussion. It’s also emotionally affecting – the second time that the main melody plays through, there is a synth sound underlying it that kind of sounds like a violin. This sound triggers just a bit of sadness. It’s a well-sculpted, short song with wide appeal. Even jazz musicians and people who normally despise electronic music enjoy it. In fact, a great cover of this song is by The Bad Plus, a jazz trio with a penchant for covering modern rock & indie tunes. The repetitive structure of “Flim” is actually quite amenable to jazz performance.
The best songs do not easily fall into any genre – they are ambiguous. This is because the most successful art takes advantage of “the beholder’s share.” The beholder’s share is a concept that was first coined by the Austrian art historians Gombrich and Riegl (note: learn more about this in Eric Kandel’s new book, The Age of Insight). It refers to the fact that all art is meant to have an audience, and the greatest artists take into account the audience’s reaction when crafting their pieces. This seems obvious, but surprisingly, many people don’t engage with art as deeply as they should, or as deeply as the artist wants them to. The fans of Skrillex who disagree with his choice of favorite song are only looking at the superficial elements of the music (the “drop” and other rhythms and structures that they are used to). If they listened to “Flim” more closely, they might determine that the spirit, or mood, of the song is quite similar to the spirit that Skrillex tries to create with his music. Or at the very least, they might appreciate Skrillex’s taste and come to realize that their idea of genre is superficial.
Every song is, in a way, a blank canvas that is not complete until we put in our share. It doesn’t become music unless it is interpreted. And the greatest works of art are the most open to interpretation (look at the Mona Lisa, for example – it is famous because people don’t quite know what to make of her facial expression). By going beyond superficial categorizations (such as genre), we can begin to separate music into the two real categories: music that is effective and music that is not.