How to tell if you’re listening to okra

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)



  1. Dear Simcha,

    Thanks for being and blogging about it. Really, thanks.

    I have a healthy respect for the dangers of junky music the way I do for sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and cute dresses. I could be captain of the debate team that lays out the argument of why most classical and some folk music is far superior to all rock.

    That said, it’s all what the music is trying to do and how authentically it’s trying to do it, which is why Aretha, White Stripes, and U2 make it onto my iPod. I don’t listen to them with my kids, pretty much for the same reason I don’t let them drink coffee. More than the inherent dangers, though, since we don’t live in a world with regular exposure to classical music, listening time, whether at home or in the car, becomes precious, some of the only time for them to get used to listening to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

    But comment box conversations are often so frustrating and always make me want to go Carthusian, until you get me thinking about Newt as an okra. Maybe trying to explain the possible value, probably pleasure primarily, and joy, to someone is like trying to explain the value of okra with the following description, rather than just fixing up a tasty batch of gumbo:

    –Okra has a unique mucilaginous juice which is responsible for its thickening power in the Louisiana dish called gumbo–

    mucilaginous — not exactly a hot marketing word


  2. Good music, regardless of genre, makes me feel aspiration, energy, transcendence, excitement, joy, love, focus. Sometimes all of those at once, other times just one.

    When listening to good music I smile, I dance, I breathe more deeply, I see beyond the dish I am washing or the diaper I am changing to the love and joy that leads me to do those tasks. The dust in my brain is blown away and new possibilities and solutions appear. Life becomes infused with the joy that accompanied my youthful aspirations as recalled by way of 80’s and dance music.

    You shall know a tree by its fruit and good music bears good fruit in me. That is how I measure music.

    P.S. Roxette = good

  3. I like okra…

    I don’t know, some music, like Mozart just makes me feel…good.
    Other music makes me dance…
    And yes, it’s mostly what I visualize. Like Raggaeton makes me just see are black lines on white, boxes, dots. Nothing much at all. Bob Marley makes me see waves of different cool colors flowing…

  4. You lost me with the okra hating. You definitely can’t please everyone all of the time, huh?

    I can see how it is repulsive to some (most?) – okra seems to have so much working against it as you say: the hair, the slime. But the taste is pretty awesome, the hair and slime don’t stand out – they’re integral to the flavor.

    I’m from the South – was introduced to okra first fried – you get the flavor without the repulsiveness that way. Anything is palatable fried.

    Also, in gumbo. Yum.

    But now I like it raw or steamed with a little olive oil and salt. Wow. I need to get some soon. I’m the one they keep restocking for.

    Now about music. . .

  5. A few months ago my wife and I had the following exchange after I saw a Newt Gingrich interview on FOX:

    BF: Ging Newtrich wrote a book about religion with his wife.
    JF: Why do you call him that, anyway?
    BF: His THIRD wife.
    JF: Aye, Santo Dios.

    Huh, somehow I think that story would be funnier if I could use italics.

    My musical tastes are so narrow and arbitrary that even I don’t think they’re worth discussing.

    No, wait! My daughters, my wife, and I all like Go Betty Go. Well, before Nicolette left the band.

    Never mind, I got nothin’.

  6. I’m one of those folks who can’t explain why I like certain songs. I like songs just … because (they make me feel happy? they make me feel sad? the lyrics are funny?).


    I like “If You See Him, If You See Her” by Reba and Brooks and Dunn.

    “Listen To Your Heart” by Roxette. When she sings the last “I don’t know where you’re going,” I feel an ache in my chest.

    “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Japanese band Mr. Children. I don’t understand a single thing they’re singing, but I love this song.

    And “Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi. Please don’t hate me. 🙂

  7. Simcha,

    First, words cannot say just how happy I am to find you in your very own blog. Well, maybe they can. Really, very much happy.

    Second, I detest okra.

    Third, I like the Black Eyed Peas. I have no idea why. But after reading your blog, I feel like I should. Let me try to explain…

    Nope. I got nuthin’.


  8. I have no standards when it comes to music. I either like it or I don’t. I don’t know why and I’m too lazy to pick my tastes apart. My husband is very into music, though, so he will often put together playlists of stuff he’s found, and I will listen to it a couple of times and usually end up really liking some songs/bands and not caring about others.

    These days I am all about The National. They really speak to me, man.

    Now okra – that’s something different. For some reason I am fascinated by it. I order it all the time, hoping to like it, and never do. However, my persistence paid off recently when my husband and I were in Philly (to see The National) and I had pickled okra. It was pretty good! Kind of like pickles, only soggier.

  9. I don’t think I’ve ever had okra. But I like the word, and if I were a hippie, I would name a daughter after it.
    Roxette – meh. Not in my Top 1000.
    All other music – I like so much of so many different kinds, not because I’m worldy or diverse, but I just like music. And for liking it so much, I’m awfully picky. In the car, I’ll go through all the stations twice before settling on something. Most of the music in my mp3 player are workout songs – and I like the songs! – but the artists who sing them would rarely make it to a list of musicians I like.

  10. We don’t have any okra over here. We do, however, have “witloof”/chicory in spades. I like it raw, but the whole “in Vlaamse wijze” (in the Flemish style, which means cover it in ham and cheese and put a thick white sauce over it) thing makes me feel woozy.

    As for music, your comments remind me a bit of some of the debates about what makes a poem a good poem. Do you think there’s an analogy there? What you say about Bach brings this to mind especially. As you know, I was no Lit. major in college, but I did take Dr. Glenn Arbery’s course on Lyric poetry. The whole feel of the lyric seemed to be something like “death is sweet but life is sweeter”. Or, maybe, because we will die, life has a certain urgency and reality that can be captured in a beautiful (successful?) poem.

    But beyond that, I’m with almost everyone else. It either strikes me or it doesn’t. And some days, only rock music strikes the right chord. Pace gregorian chant lovers.

    • Or, maybe, because we will die, life has a certain urgency and reality that can be captured in a beautiful (successful?) poem.

      Renee – yes, absolutely! I went on and on about that in my original post, but started to get very pedantic, which is no fun. The funny thing is that that urgency can be captured in non-serious pieces- they can be just little throwaway songs (or poems or stories or whatever), but if they somehow grabbed a little – ugh, for want of a better word before I’ve had my coffee – spark, then they’re in.

  11. I had okra stewed as a child and hated it. Then I grew up, married a southerner (I’m from NJ originally) and he fried it and I loved it. My first born had it as one of her first veggies and is addicted.

    what’s going on here? I grew up, my tastes matured. In high school I loved the Doors, but by college I had shown them the door. The reason? Ray Manzarek’s organ playing. Now I believe the organ has a place in rock, and it’s where the late Danny Federici of the E Street Band placed it. When Danny plays “City of Ruin” it sounds like a church organ, when he plays “Glory Days” it sounds like the organ at a baseball game. He adapted the instrument through his ear for the music. Ray Manzarek just pounded the keys. Oh and to quote music journalist Lester Bangs in the movie “Almost Famous,” “Jim Morrison is a drunken buffoon.”

    My husband grew up hating jazz because his father blasted it all the time. Then he met and fell in love with me and now he loves jazz and our two year old dances to “A Love Supreme.” When I explained to my husband to close his eyes and listen to the story John Coltrane was telling through his sax he opened his eyes and for the first time really heard the music. Sometimes a life experience changes how you listen to some music and you end up either loving or hating it.

    But most music I love, I love arbitrarily. Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherry” anyone? (that’s a hell yeah in my house)

  12. I grew up in a somewhat musically retarded family – my parents small record collection ranged from “Romeo and Julliet” to thriller, with some ’70’s Glory and Praise stuff. I never really sought anything out, but was content with whatever top 40 stuff was floating around. Classical pieces all sounded like the same elevator music. Jazz conjured Mr. Rogers and nothing more. And what my husband assures me is the high point of rock all sounded like unpleasant screaming guitars.

    But then I met said husband, who had an incredible music education and appreciation and he has opened up worlds to me (he also taught me to drive stick – what a man)! It has been like Lewis’s Great Divorce, where some souls can’t appreciate heaven because they’re just not ready, but when they are all the beauty unfolds. Now I can’t think of a genre that doesn’t appeal to me, and I have learned how to hear and understand the different kinds of beauty in different works.

    Just like any form of art, there are objective standards of beauty and perfection, but just like any art the appreciation of any particular depends on the subjective disposition of the veiwer. I am a ridiculous, forgetful optimist [think Dory the fish in Nemo] and for some reason melancholy music in minor keys helps me experience emotions of sadness that otherwise I have a hard time expressing, and I seek them out. My husband, on the other hand is a highly focused pes* oh, excuse me, “realist” and he always gravitates toward music that is up-beat and happy, I think for the same reason. I have noticed a similar phenom in my children according to their tempraments.

    While I think I have come to understand music more fully and value it’s more perfect forms and am trying to inculcate this knowledge in my offsprings little noggins, I just cannot stomach musical snobbery. I had a friend who had an incredible love and understanding of music, but she told me she stormed out of a church as soon as she heard the “horrid cha-ching, cha-ching of guitars!” Glory and Praise can have it’s problems, but that was my entire childhood experience of religion and some of it still means a lot to me. I’d prefer chant, which my current parish preforms masterfully, but really!

    Are we all supposed to love only the finest foods, or can we like mac’n’cheese? Can we only hang original oils by old masters on our walls, or can we throw up a cheap print from Wal Mart if it strikes our fancy? Do we all have to live in stately Georgian revivals, or can we feel comfortable and at home in our 1960’s prefab ranch with a few hanging baskets of flowers? Do we all have to marry supermodels, or can we truly love our spouse if they’re a bit chubby and lop-sided?!?!?!

    Mid-90’s angst stuff still really grabs me, though I know it’s crap. It takes me back to a time when I thought I was starting to understand the meaning of life, and I was effortlessly thin and I could stay up til 3am just talking and sleep til 2:00pm on Saturday if I wanted to. So, it makes me stupidly peaceful.

    My husband insists that Grateful Dead music is beautiful, but I just can’t hear it. We have a reoccuring car trip fight every year in which he says, “just listen to this song – it’s lovely.” Then I angrily stare out the window until it’s over and tell him I don’t think the children should listen to this “drug music.” I speculate it brings him back to a time when all he had to worry about was making sure he could find some food now and then, but maybe I’m just being stubborn.

    You know, I’m letting the 2-yr-old watch kid’s videos on the other side of this screen and I am totally distracted and have no idea what of this is coherent or spelled correctly or germane to the topic, but I am now too lazy to go back over it. So there.

  13. I’ll tolerate okra in gumbo, because gumbo rocks, but I stand by my adolescent assessment of fried okra as like to fried snot.

    As for music, while the societal implications of an alliance between hip-hop and redneck culture make me a little nervous, I love the song Long Hard Times To Come by Gangstagrass featuring T.O.N.E-Z. Some of the other songs are okay, but that one has a natural flow and doesn’t sound forced at all. Then again, maybe I just like banjo and will take it where I can get it.

  14. I’m just an emotional glut and if I feel the emotion – if I believe that the artist cares and feels it – then I love it. Any genre. My limitation is hate. I can handle anger in small doses but not too much and not with hate. This has limited my rap intake, but I do not feel that I am the worse for it. That’s all I ask of my music – to be an honest and sincere expression.

  15. I know this thread is probably dead & that this post wasn’t about Newt but, Catholic-to-Catholic, I have to say that’s a shabby way to welcome this man to the Catholic faith…by comparing him to an that horrible vegetable! Go see what he’s done in making “Nine Days That Changed the World”. He & his wife are very devout & are trying to be good spokespersons for our faith.

    With all due respect, your post should begin:
    Okra + Blago = Slime

  16. “I have to say that’s a shabby way to welcome this man to the Catholic faith…”

    Shabby as ditching his first wife while she was in the hospital getting treated for Cancer? Shabby as having an affair with his intern while his party tried to impeach Clinton? Shabby as pretending to think about running for president every time he has a book to sell? Since when does being a Catholic mean you can never be called out for being a slimebag? Oh, right, he’s a conservative Catholic. The liberal slimebags are slimebags. The conservatives need charity. Got it.

  17. Yes! Happy to read this and find another like-minded Catholic on the subject. I’m the product of a very musical upbringing and rock music was not allowed. So I had to sneak it. Late nights with a crap radio on my pillow listening to KROQ in its early days. My youth was spent diligently saving babysitting dough for an album only to have my father confiscate it and stash it somewhere it in the endless piles in my parents’ bedroom, attic, or one of the million places he stored junk. Very strict about music; throwing stuff away, not so much. A recent emptying of the attic yielded The Unforgettable Fire LP, a U2 book I bought at the concert in support of that album, and some Rolling Stones albums, taken from my oldest brother in the 60’s . Justice at last!

    Music is meant to move the soul and we should be critical of what we let in. Polyphony, chant, and most classical are certainly higher art forms and exposure to them is beneficial and necessary for good musical formation. My kids get plenty of it. But we like to rock. I believe it’s fine to expose children to rock music but I am very selective about it at a young age. My older kids have branched out from the Beach Boys and early rock to more sophisticated stuff. I am proud of their ability to discern the good from the crap.
    Being a vocalist I generally look at the singer first when dissecting rock music. A great lead singer must have that strange paradox of ego and humility that conveys fearlessness and honesty at the same time. Abeautiful voice is not necessary. Be on key, be interesting, and phrase well. And that leads to lyrics. Have something worthwhile to say and be courageous. Make the melody complement the ideas. A marvelous example: U2’s “Acrobat” off Achtung Baby. A brutal self examination of conscience against the backdrop of anguish ridden guitar lines. Genius.
    Melody is what most people notice first. In my opinion, a great song need not be immediately melodically accessible but the first listening should beg for another-and another and so on. And it needn’t be complex. The Kings of Leon’s “Manhattan” is a fine example.

    And sometimes it’s cool to ditch the mac and cheese in favor of Doritos right outta the bag. And that’s what Weezer is for. Fun, easy, and strangely tasty.

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