One song: more musical than another?
This is the quandary my listening habits have put me in lately. Recently (well, really, for the last year or so), I've been fascinated and enraptured by the song "May You Never" by British folk singer John Martyn. Included on his 1973 album "Solid Air," the song (later covered by Eric Clapton, though I've never heard his version) is an embarrassment of melodic and rhythmic riches. Gently loping finger-picked guitar sets the song's addictively ambling tempo. Martyn's careful use of dynamics creates an awesomely percussive sound, soft and folky yet ferociously mobile, each acoustic pluck tickling the ear.
Martyn's vocals, meanwhile, are a wonder as well. He possesses a trademark slurring style, and many of the lyrics are unintelligible rolls of syllables that resolve gracefully into devotional hymns-"love is a lesson to learn in our time," he pleads repeatedly. Yet the lyrics are shaded with hints of violence and paranoia, as Martyn gets ominous and doting with lines like "you hold no blade to stab me in my back/ and I know there's some that do." And then there's the song's hook, gently cradling you with its best wishes: "May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold/ and may you never make your bed out in the cold."
This uncanny mass of sounds and words is animated, given life, by one of the loveliest melodies I've ever heard, a simple and drifting line of such pure warmth and sympathy that Martyn seems to choke on it over and over again, in rhythm with his ascent to the chorus.
In short, "May You Never" is ravishing. As I lay on my bed listening to it on an early September day that felt improbably like mid-October, I felt struck with the realization that here was a song that was relentlessly, gratuitously musical. The fundamental pieces of which music as a medium is wrought were bouncing off of each other, intertwining, radiating toward a fever pitch of tunefulness.
Then I caught myself. These are values on which I've never ever placed almost any priority as a music listener, fan or critic. Much if not most of the music I hold most dear simply doesn't correlate at all with the values of melody, complexity, musical dexterity and skill, beauty, lyrical delicacy-in short, conventional musicality. Hip-hop and electronic dance music are both very close to my heart, and I've always found that the most trite thing anyone can say about either style is to accuse them of not being music, as if revoking their "music passes" would make them less potent, important, or glorious. Why have "music" when I could have this?
Why have "music" when?I could have this?
So let's take another of my favorite songs as an example, one that has been near and dear to me since junior high: M.O.P.'s "Ante Up."
M.O.P., a.k.a. Mash Out Posse, are a Brooklyn hip-hop group that can perhaps claim the title of "Hardest Rappers Ever." Their freakish capacity to scream all of their lyrics at the top of their lungs for the entire duration of an album (and, if you want to get real about it, the entire duration of their career) reached its apex on 2000's "Ante Up." While M.O.P.'s beats of choice, often crafted by hip-hop production overlord DJ Premier, often emphasized traditional East Coast layered-sample complexity, "Ante Up" is pure brute functionality-loud horn blares, pounding drums, pretty much nothing else.
Appropriately enough, then, "Ante Up" takes as its lyrical subject one thing and one thing only: robbing people. In fact, most of the lyrics are addressed either to an accomplice in crime or, even more intimidatingly, to the victim. "Hand over the ring, take over the chain/ Give me the fuckin' watch before I pop one in your brain/ Stop playin' these childish games with me," commands MC Billy Danze. Later, Lil' Fame takes on the judiciary, exclaiming "Fuck you Your Honor, check my persona/ I'm strong enough for Old Gold and marijuana!" Rich Cronin of the idiotic '90's boy band L.F.O. once mused about M.O.P., "Those guys are the hardest, they, like, rob people and stuff." Indeed.
How do I reconcile these polar opposites? After a few mental acrobatics, I came up with a new theory. For songs with a high Traditional Musicality Quotient (TMQ)-that is, songs premised on the things traditionally valued by the largely white, male, racist and sexist rock-critic establishment dating back to the '60's-the key is restraint.
It practically pains me to say this, since another thing I particularly despise in music is subtlety, but what makes "May You Never" so enthralling isn't so much musicality, but the way that its musicality is stifled, restricted, drawn taut. The track is short, compositionally simple, and features no solos. Without this sort of restraint, you wind up with something like Peter Frampton's "Frampton Comes Alive," every copy of which should be destroyed on sight by anyone with any regard for human kind.
It also goes both ways-indie bands tend to premise themselves already on sonic shabbiness, on the deliberate degradation of rock norms. But when a band from this tradition tries to go grandiose (see: the Arcade Fire circa "Neon Bible") you wind up with music that is worthless and boring.
For styles that are totally indifferent to "traditional musicality," restraint tends to muck things up. Low-TMQ tunes are at their best-and at their most socially potent-when they blare, rage, squeal, scream, gush, rush, and galvanize.
Under this new formation, the history of pop music aesthetics seems to be one of repressing the musical urge. Does this hold true for everyone? Absolutely not. Will it always hold true for me? Probably not. But part of the thrill of being a music enthusiast is testing out new musical strategies, and the next time I throw my headphones on, I will be armed to the gills against the musical-paradoxically, so that I can enjoy it at its best.
Peter Valelly is Arts editor of The Mac Weekly, the independent student newspaper of Macalester College (St Paul, Minnesota)