In December of 1989, I was living in a remote and very cold Spanish town. I had chosen to be disconnected from most of the world for the previous year – no news, little connection with family or friends – and only listened to sacred music, if any. I was enjoying a newly-arrived cassette copy of an album of hymns that a friend had made for me, and the album ran out before the tape did. In the palimpsestic way that we shared music back then, the cassette had previously held a copy of U2’s The Joshua Tree. So I suddenly and inadvertently found myself listening to the last moments of “Trip Through Your Wires,” followed by the chiming introduction of “One Tree Hill.”
Things got very complicated. In my world of that moment, such music threatened the spiritual equanimity I was trying to maintain, and I reached to turn it off. But I couldn’t, swept up in the spacious architecture that spanned between The Edge’s arcing lead lines and the gentle train-track rattle and sway of Larry Mullen’s rhythm. I had a transcendent experience, best I can tell: my definition of “sacred music” grew three sizes that day.
The song is drawn like that. It progresses through the most essential tensions and releases of the American sacred and secular idiom – but like so much blues, it never makes it to the five, too busy with the implications of the one and fours. (Put another way: “Amazing Grace” let’s you off the hook, but “Boom Boom” never does.) U2 were deep into blues and Americana at that point, and nothing was an accident on that record. That was enough for me, apparently. Of course I knew the album, but had never heard the song – in my defense, it’s a deep cut, the penultimate one, if one of the biggest albums of the century can be said to have deep cuts. I was rapt, and transformed when it ended, come through Saturday night all the way into Sunday morning.
Cut to eight years later. I am in Spain again, this time with a group of high school students on a homestay. I am in another extreme state here, perhaps back to Spain to try to set right some of what had been amiss the first time, ghosts everywhere. Spinning U2’s anti-manifesto Zooropa in my host teacher’s guest room, I get that same zing listening to “Dirty Day” (also the second-to-last song on that record). Again, the track is a consummation intimated but never attained, as the four-chord vamp falls endlessly but never hits the bottom. This time the architecture burrows rather than soars, and down I go along with it. A little light breaks through on a single, pale bridge, but that only makes the following darkness deeper.
So, I met God and the devil at the crossroads of two U2 songs. I know: check please. But both these experiences keep rising to the surface as I read considerations of whether there’s a science, or at least a system, to what makes music affect us. Slate has a nice summary of some recent articles in this vein, which turns especially on the power of Adele’s mega-single “Someone Like You,” and it was on our mind before that thanks to Oliver Sacks’ Musicophila (and not a little thanks to SNL). I find ditherings about the science of music kind of beside the point, actually (all respect to Dr. Sacks). Efforts to account for art’s power to move predate brain scans by a fair piece, and when I read some of them back in the aesthetics class I took at Duke I remember being amazed just how far the algorithmic impulse seems to stretch, and to how little effect; how much we want to be able to rationalize what’s going on, in order to duplicate it for greater profit or psy-op it into a more persuasive jingle for our soap or our cheeseburgers.
More interesting, I think, is David Byrne’s new book. I’ve only read the free chapter, but he is definitely onto something as he explores the upside-down idea that “context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed”:
That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180 degrees from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.
Byrne is exactly the guy I want to hear hold forth thusly, as my generation’s premier pomo artist/musician/fellow who’s thought a lot about this (he went to art school first, remember: Velvet Underground found art through music, Talking Heads brought art to music, maybe). His thesis is really fun to follow, as he wonders at how everything from Ramones to Bach to Wagner to Ghanian drum circle happens the way it does because of the place in which it happens, first and foremost: rocks and trees, and physical culture.
So maybe music is about a feeling that you are more or less likely to have in a particular place. And if in our culture there are some moves to get you there that always work, that’s not the same as having a formula. “Why are the Black-Eyed Peas so popular? They can’t sing!” bemoans my youngest son. “Dirty Bit,” I reply, and he reflexively begins singing the buzzing bass line of their elementary-school anthem “The Time” – itself built on the irresistible chorus that made it essential to my generation’s school dances too. That’s why: The Black-Eyed Peas know where your button is, and they push it again and again. It’s not about singing – it’s about knowing where you live. Just ask will.i.am:
I don’t write it on paper; I record and write into the machine. I would mumble a cadence. I know if it feels good or not because I’m hearing it rather than writing it on a piece of paper.
The interview’s amazing to hear, as he freestyles rhythms into a recorder on the spot, discarding what doesn’t work and repeating what does until he’s got something intense that moves his personal motorbooty. And that’s the song. The space will.i.am records for is the space inside his head – a space that, somehow, also leads to sounds that work in cars, and clubs, and Super Bowl halftime shows.
Maybe we should acknowledge that fitting music to its space includes its cultural space too, and maybe Black-Eyed Peas inhabit one of those rare, global pop spaces where their personality overwhelms their sound. In other words, they don’t HAVE to sound especially appropriate to their space, because their appeal in large part comes from their presence in all spaces. They seem content enough to inhabit Total Media Saturation uncritically (and lucratively). Not so U2, whose present work is constantly inflected by echoes of what’s gone before. Zooropa’s inevitably built in the shadow of the band’s monolithic previous success: Achtung Baby was made to “chop down the Joshua Tree” and try to give them some creative space outside the earnest, brooding, Catholic high ground they had invented for themselves and were so viciously parodied for (Zooropa’s essentially its B-side, tracked during the two-year tour for AB). While Black-Eyed Peas sits still, like a slow-moving hurricane dumping rain until we’re all flooded out, U2 wants to move away from all they’ve built. Sometimes we go with them, sometimes we don’t.*
My U2 experiences are inextricably connected to the spaces and times where and when they happened. Part of what makes music so universal is, paradoxically, how personally situated experiences of it are, even when it’s listening to a CD for the first time in a certain room, with a certain person (a timeless record of a performance rendered a single performance). Music can do that: inscribe a specific moment in time and place forever. I’ll end this with a memoir of just such an experience, names changed to protect the innocent:
When I was twelve, I loved classical music. Maybe it was a nerdy act of self-empowerment; maybe I was scared by the cooler kids, unable to find any purchase in their world or their stuff; maybe it was just because those were the records I found in my grandmother’s basement, together with some Paul Mariat, some Herb Alpert, and an album of yodeling with a family of grim blonde people on the front in lederhosen. In any case, classical worked for me. It impressed grown ups, and there was tons of it in the house. I brought the set of all twelve Tchaikovsky symphonies into school for my sixth-grade teacher to spin on the record player while we did individual work. The others must have loathed me, but I was a pig in mud. My parents let me move the massive tube radio into my room so I could listen to the public radio’s classical broadcast while doing my homework. My grades were good. And so it went.
The Anderson girls changed all that. They were four sisters I knew from church, as close in age as was physically possible, from high school on down. They loved me, like a little brother I guess. They were part Cheryl Tiegs and part Joan Jett, identically feathered hair running blonde to dark black; they wore faded, snug Lee jeans, matching white leather Nikes, and menacing black T-shirts featuring musicians I did not know.
One shirt in particular of Elaine’s stands out: a blue baseball jersey with white sleeves that featured the fierce glare of the yeti-owl from the cover of Rush’s “Fly By Night.” Of course, I did not know about Rush, or any rock music, until one day at their house. We were in the eldest’s room, where a dozen posters of hulking, homely men in tight silks, hair flowing like gladiators, loomed on the walls. Fog and sweat abounded in concert photos, glowering intensity in the portraits. I asked her who they were. Incredulous, she pushed me down on the bed. “You gotta hear this,” she said, and clapped enormous pre-Walkman headphones on me, the cable coiling like a viper across my lap. Turning to the massive stereo’s turntable, she carefully set the needle on “YYZ”, an instrumental track from Rush’s just-released live double album “Exit…Stage Left,” and left me alone in the room, like Tommy before the Acid Queen.
Scratchy quiet. Then, an urgent, stuttering rhythm on a tiny triangle, a sledgehammer of dense articulation. It was so loud, low and high hurtling together through a dissonant pair of notes to the same rhythm, a wash of space synthesizers descending beneath it to the tonic to end with eight epic, ostinato pulses. A second of silence echoed in the hall – punctuated by a joyous whoop from a blissed-out fan – and the guitar, bass and drums blew back into the room, now in ascending unison, an irregular figure worked out according to logics sensed but not evident, spinning in filigree until it swooped like a shimmering dragon into the abyss as the drums settled into a driving pulse beneath the snarling guitar theme.
It ran for seven minutes. I cowered slack-jawed between the cans, battered by my first onslaught of deadly serious high-baroque progressive rock. Neil Peart’s legendary drum solo was impressive, but its details were lost to me on this first listen; I was snowblind, overwhelmed by the sparkling brilliance of this new territory, barely hanging on through to the song’s end. I took off the headphones as she came back in the room, the joyous grin that comes from sharing something very precious breaking over her face. “What did you think?” she asked.
*apropos to nothing, but still awesome: I think Britney Spears’ “Til The World Ends” is a block-rocking beat in part because, in the single mix, they slyly muffle the high end and boost the midrange of the out chorus so it sounds like it’s coming through the walls of a club you’ve been waiting all night to get into. Suddenly, in the middle of an obliterating dance track, there’s a pressure drop, and a sense of space evoked in your mind, if not your body. This music belongs to a certain kind of room, it says – won’t you come with me there, now?
Thanks to Scott Shephard for image – used under Creative Commons license.