I do not like okra. It’s pretty much the worst vegetable you can imagine, kind of like the Newt Gingrich of the produce world: hairy and fibrous on the outside, seedy and slimy on the inside. It just makes you wonder, why is it even here? What is the point of this food, other than to make you glad when it finally goes out of season?
And yet there it is in the supermarket. Every week I pass it by with a shudder; but I know someone must buy it, because they keep putting more out.
Life is so short, I would hate to miss out on some valuable experience. On the other hand, I’m a lazy, lazy woman. So when I want to meet life head on, when I feel the urge to stretch out a wondering hand and pluck the fruit of some new experience that our amazing world has to offer, it usually takes the form of — say, eating fruit. Or listening to a new kind of music. You know, something I can do sitting down.
A recent (not terribly fruitful) conversation in the comment box of Inside Catholic has brought up a few interesting points. I put up a video of a song by The Black Keys, who are a pretty good rock band. Okay, so they’re not Mozart. They’re not even the Rolling Stones. They just sound pretty good to me. So once the huffing and puffing subsided (did you realize that, despite claiming to be Catholic, I listen to things which are not Gregorian Chant?), someone who didn’t like the music asked why I do like it. A fair question. She didn’t hear what I heard, and was curious.
I simply don’t have the mental energy at the moment to explain why rock music sounds good to me. But since I do have a policy of at least trying to listen carefully to something new, I thought I’d ask you all: how do you listen to music? Specifically, if someone tells you, “Hey, this stuff is great!” and you don’t hear it right away?
Here is what I listen for:
Does the singer or musician sound like he means it? He doesn’t have to be wrenching his guts out and laying them at your feet like Otis Redding does, but is he really present in the performance, or is he just letting the music trot him around?
Was there some self-control in the crafting of song? Writing is easy; it’s editing that kills you. That’s what (among other things) was so great about the Beatles: they always knew when to stop. Say what you have to say, make it good, and then go away. I’m looking at you, Led Zeppelin.
Does anything come to mind when I hear this song? If it sounds like something to me, then it looks like something, too, mentally. It’s not usually a literal illustration of what the song is about (and obviously that couldn’t be the case if there are no lyrics) — it’s just some colorful or textural image, which worthless music is not capable of producing.
I also like to think about what instrumental works would be saying if they had words, and I’ve noticed that musicians are generally saying the same thing over and over, no matter what different kinds of work they produce throughout their career. For instance, I think that most of Brahms’ instrumental work is saying, “Death is sweet, but life is sweeter” (or sometimes I think it’s the other way around).
I guess the funny thing about listening attentively is that you have to tune out most of what you normally hear. You have to forget that, “okay, this is an electric guitar, that guy sounds nasal, I bet this is from the early 90′s, or from the late Baroque period; this is the song that goes with that Sprite commercial, this is the song that that jerk in 8th grade study hall used to sing all the time,” etc. You have to, as it were, listen on the slant, and try and hear through to where the song lives – -what kind of house it’s built for itself. In this way, you will not only discover why some famous musicians are famous, but you will wonder why some other famous people are even allowed on the stage.
And sometimes it just sounds good to you, and you can’t say why. You know what? I like Roxette. I know there’s nothing there; I just like them.
But The Black Eyed Peas? I know they’re famous, but man, they’re just okra.
Okay, so what are your standards? How do you decide if what you’re hearing is worth your time?
(okra photo source)
(Gingrich photo source)
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