How Music Works: We Love What We Love
Humans are wired to be most receptive to music in our teens and early 20s. Then the window starts to close.
Thanks to the restless and inquiring mind of Colin McEnroe, many of us have been recently thinking about the following questions: Is the rock era over?
Did we perhaps overvalue a lot of the foundational music from that era? Do we now have enough distance on the rock heyday to confidently sort out the wheat from the chaff? What was “MacArthur Park” all about?
Colin brought all this up, and more, in a recent Facebook post, partly in reply to an online piece written by the cultural critic Terry Teachout.
The post received a lot of comment, and the topic spilled over onto The Nose panel on WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show a few days later.
After years of thinking about this, I basically have this to say: The heart wants what it wants.
Or, to slightly modify for pop music, we love what we love.
That’s almost the beginning and end of the conversation.
If it is your position that Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” is a good and important recording, and you continue to hold it close to your bosom; or, alternately, if you feel that “Fragile,” by Yes, is pretentious and overpraised, you are entitled. And you are, in addition, probably beyond the reach of argument. That’s not a comment on your taste or your closed-mindedness; it’s an acknowledgement of how music works.
Those of us who write about music (Heaven help us) can do our best to analyze why one tune, or album, feels fresh and captivating while another seems – to use Teachout’s prim phrase – “embarrassingly jejune.” (Jejune!) But as the years pile up, I find that this kind of analysis, while sometimes fun to read or even write, does not change minds or hearts.
Human beings are wired with receptivity to music that’s at its absolute max when we are in our teens and early 20s. After that, as with language, the window closes quickly.
When this happens, as we encounter new and unfamiliar music, we start dissembling. We scratch around for terms like “derivative” and “pedestrian.” If we are introduced to this new music by our children we will say, Oh, that’s really interesting, knowing that we will never, ever, of our own accord, listen to that tune again.
I am exaggerating, but not much.
The music we love is a unique and uniquely revealing witness to our lives. We can try to disavow it, especially if we’re worried about looking unhip. But I think it’s best to, as they say, own it. I can’t tell you why, driving around in the car the other day, when I encountered “Peek a Boo” (Cadillacs), or “Right Next Door to an Angel (Neil Sedaka) or “Dear Lady Twist (Gary US Bonds) or “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran), I had to hit the radio dial and turn it up all the way. And yet there it is. Dumb songs, you say? Sue me. (Frank Loesser’s “Sue Me,” come to think of it, is also a great little tune.)
Trying to assert that “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is an inferior piece of work compared to many of Elton’s earlier tunes -- as somebody did on Colin’s show the other day -- is a fool’s errand. (For the record, I for one would rather hear that song than, say, “Crocodile Rock.” Discuss.)
But what about the verdict of musicians themselves? They say Sinatra hated the Beatles. What about that?
What about it? The fact that Sinatra thought the Beatles were crap means nothing. Frank’s talent was singing, not appraising the shifting musical culture. Besides, his strained, self-parodying Rat Packy treatment of, say, “Something” showed that he just didn’t get it. And in music, that which we don’t get we tend to denigrate. By the time the Beatles arrived, Frank’s window had closed.
(The exception I would make to this observation is jazz players. When they take up a song, we should take notice. They usually hear better than the rest of us, so if Miles finds something interesting in “Someday My Prince will Come,” or Coltrane is moved to explore “My Favorite Things,” we should pay attention.)
One persistent myth – which is sort of implied in the Teachout piece – is that rock 'n' roll was mostly created and performed by three-chord musical illiterates who had the impertinence to supplant the great songwriting masters of the golden age -- the age of what we now reverently, though very imprecisely, call the Great American Songbook. It doesn’t hold up.
For one thing, that golden age was coming to an end in the '50s and '60s anyway. Music created after Sputnik and TV and Brown vs. Board wasn’t going to sound like music written in the '30s, any more than “Embraceable You” sounded like “Beautiful Dreamer.” For another, although there certainly are a lot of achingly dumb three-chord rock songs, simplicity itself is not the issue. “Beautiful Dreamer” is basically a three-chord song.
Maybe the rock era did produce more than its share of stinkers, I don’t know. And maybe some of what we embraced in the '60s and '70s is not destined for a long shelf life. The verdict is still being deliberated.
At the very least, we can say that this sorting out process is always going on, with music of any period.
But at the risk of seeming to contradict my original thesis, let’s try to sort by merit, not by era.
Teachout cites Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly” as being the last (or almost) of the Broadway-based standards to have reached the top of the pop charts. (It became number one, knocking off the Beatles, no less, in the spring of 1964.)
After that, rock took over for good.
The implication is always that some kind of curtain had fallen, and that American popular music, at that moment, lost something that it never would recover. I would just say that, to my ears, “Hello Dolly,” like many Jerry Herman tunes, is a fairly conventional, formulaic piece of work. And although Armstrong certainly gave it a bouncy vitality, “Can’t Buy Me Love” -- the Beatles song that it replaced at the top slot -- and Mary Wells’s “My Guy” -- which in turn replaced it -- are, in my book, better songs.
One final thing: although we’re mainly talking about popular music, I find that these thoughts apply to classical music as well. I know a lot of people who identify themselves as classical music fans. I like these people and I admire their musical passions. Truth to tell, however, most of them know very little about music in any kind of formal sense. No matter. They know what they know. And in nearly all cases, they developed their passions when they were young.
Small wonder that they, as a rule, are today unenthusiastic about sitting in a hall and listening to new and unfamiliar music, as opposed to taking in their umpteenth performance of some classical chestnut, whose opening measures will reliably release a flood of memories, and – as has now been demonstrated in the lab – a flood of endorphins.
Whether it’s Rachmaninoff or Cream, Berlioz or Joplin, the heart, it seems, still wants what it wants. This is just how it works.
Steve Metcalf can be reached at email@example.com.