Sunday, February 17, 2013


Sometimes a new song comes on the radio and before you can really explain the reason why, you recognize the artist who made it. The sound is familiar, it evokes a memory or an experience, but it remains beyond the level of full cognition. It is like when you are on a trip and you step out of the car and you can tell by the taste and texture of the wind that you are near the sea. Or like in late summer, when it is still hot and the days are sort of long. Before the leaves have begun to show and before the sunlight shifts to that angle that makes you feel hopeless, there will be a feeling in the air, a cool note at the end of a warm breeze that is like the shadow of heat (if that makes any sense), that makes you realize that summer won’t last forever. Yesterday, I had that feeling when I heard The Airborne Toxic Event’s “Timeless” for the first time.

This song has a stone-cold-close-your eyes-and-clench-your-fist-then-throw-it-into-the-sky-and-sing-along sensibility that I usually find off-putting. But this band has a soft spot in my heart. One of my favorite memories of the recent past is the image of a very pretty redheaded woman sitting in my lap drunkenly singing along to “Changing,” the band’s last single. She loved that song. One very late night we were up listening to music on the computer—lame, I know, but it happens more often than we want to admit—and she insisted that we needed to hear this song right away. She put it on, dropped on my lap, and proceeded to feel the fuck out of that song. She seemed so happy to be singing that it made me happy as well. I let her down often and maybe that’s why I remember this scene with such affection: I mostly made her unhappy but this one time I knew that she was happy. That woman was far too pretty and far too nice to have wasted so much of her time with a good for nothing like me. But life draws up its own rules, doesn’t it?

And life is the topic of “Timeless.” In particular, the feeling that life is about loss and that if only life lasted long enough then we would be spared the pain of having to say goodbye to the people that we love. If we were just endless, the song posits, then we would never have to part from anyone we care for. It’s a lovely thought. It’s the thought of someone who has lost people that are irreplaceable. I think, however, that while life, like love and language, seems like something there is not enough of, at another level it also feels, like love and language, like something there is too much of.  Life is too short but it also lasts too long. We want to go on loving the people that we love forever. But life lasts long enough to make a mockery of the things we love, to make the things we care for seem insignificant. Life lasts long enough to make us happy and then take away our happiness, and this happens over and over again. I’m glad that we are not timeless. I’m glad to know that while life does not guarantee our happiness forever it also makes sure that the bad stuff doesn’t last forever either.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ho, Burn!

I enjoy The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” even if the radio plays it a bit too often. And how could you not like it, really? It has a pretty melody, and it practically demands that you sing along. Then there is the sweetly melodramatic thematic content of the song: the forlorn, soulful, sensitive, artistic boy pining over a girl who has not chosen him. This is a difficult character to not identify with. Furthermore, even if we cannot write a song, we want to believe that we would be the kind of person that is capable of artistic expression despite everything. The song affirms a fairly universal, thus fairly platitudinous, stand for art against the crude materiality of our times. Anyone who has ever written a poem—everyone!—knows the feeling of the calling of art and of the elevated sense of self that comes with such a calling. Also, the song’s musicality has a kind of craftsman’s quality, the quality of organic, disinterested musicians being organic disinterested musicians that almost screams out THIS IS MUSIC. It seems to me that in most terms this song passes the bar for what some people would call “good” music.

But I like a song like “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps a lot more. First of all, “Disco Inferno” is more or less determined by its heavy bass line, a feature mostly absent in “Ho Hey” and which I straight up love. That bass line propels the song forward, gives it the joyous sensibility that contrasts so dramatically with its strange imagery. The song paints this weird picture of a catastrophic event: a skyscraper on fire, the fire rising, and people trapped on the rooftop. People catch on fire, they dance out of control, and the pleasurable thrill of the scene is too much for the song’s narrator, who then has “to self destruct.” Craziness. Then there is the terrific and unique blend of horns, strings, and rhythm particular to disco (fuck yeah disco!). I dig it the most. Nonetheless, the appeals to the artist and to art are not here. Nor is the sensibility of music as craft. The primary purpose of the music is to get you to dance, to entertain you, to make you burn. Unlike “Ho Hey,” this is not music one is supposed to sit and listen to, and it doesn’t ask you to sing along. Dancing is its imperative. Because it doesn’t require contemplation on the part of the listener nor does it feed the fantasies of art, “Disco Inferno” must seem to some people as not “good” music.

The issue for me here is not to get people who think “Ho Hey” is good music to think that “Disco Inferno” is as good. Foucault's discussion of the scientificity of discourse is relevant to this. According to Foucault, the point is not whether we can raise formerly subjugated knowledge, that is, marginalized or discredited knowledge, to the status of “scientific” truth. Instead, he argues, we should question the wish to see the status of truth and the power of truth conferred onto subjugated knowledge.  The desire to see something as scientific is the desire to invest it with authority. So I guess I don’t care if anyone thinks “Disco Inferno” constitutes good music; rather, I just want everyone to appreciate how The Trammps understand and convey the function of music. It does no good to argue whether the musical sensibilities of one genre are better than those of another, and anyone who engages in such an argument seeks only to establish some kind of cultural hierarchy. Music is more interesting and more important than the inequalities that it can be made to establish or maintain.