Thursday, June 13, 2013

Musicalia: I Love This Song, but Why?

As humans, we are raging with bias. It is what helps us survive. How could we not be biased? Everything that happens is perceived based on what has come before. So what does it really mean when someone says, “I love this song!”? Is it because Johnny Cool down the street likes it (need to belong), or is it because a sibling hates it (need to distinguish oneself), or is it because it actually sounds good? Why do we like one song over another in the first place? As a student of psychology, I think I might have a few answers. They aren’t the magical answers we all want to hear--in fact they are laden with half-truths and disclaimers--but it’s fucking science.

This is now part of the program where I use a disturbingly true story from my childhood as a lead-in. What follows is highly embarrassing to say the least. When I was about, let’s say 9, my brother and his friends and my friends and my friends’ friends and every pre-teen in the world loved NKOTB. That’s right, I just abbreviated New Kids on the Block. I, on the other hand, fucking hated them. It wasn’t necessarily that I hated the music or their looks or boyish charm or any other aspect of their being; it was that I had somehow picked up on it being cooler than cool to hate NKOTB. All the cool kids had NKOTB posters in their rooms, recited all the lyrics to "Hangin’ Tough" before school, and wore faded print NKOTB T-shirts. I made fun of those kids. But somewhere along the line, something terrible happened. 

I was tired of bashing America’s favorite boy band. I was tired of listening to my brother and our collective friends play the videos over and over and over again while dancing joyously. I was tired of being ostracized just for hating crappy pop music. So I did the unforgivable: I started to like NKOTB. Looking at NKOTB’s Wikipedia page, I’m assuming it was roughly the summer of 1991. I was at the local craft fair, and kids were getting their faces painted. After several of my friends put New Kids’ names on their faces, I decided to rock out a perfectly flamboyant, cursive “Donnie” on my right cheek. It had a glittery sparkle that would have made Liberace beam with pride. On top of it all, I had the worst possible timing ever. As a kid, one doesn’t know that fads don’t last forever. Had I stuck to my guns and waited just a few more months, I would have had the last say. I could have pointed fingers and made childish jokes and laughed maniacally from the balcony of my told-you-so tower, but I had to join ‘em instead of trying to beat ‘em, so when NKOTB’s reign ended, I had to keep my lips sealed. My friends knew what I had done, and maybe secretly they knew I was originally “right”, but all I could do was hang my head.

The enjoyment of music- when broken down to the simplest of terms- can be easily defined. Very basically, we like music that is complex enough to intrigue us, but not too simple that it bores us. Imagine the mental bludgeoning that comes from one single piano note played over and over (or just watch Eyes Wide Shut), now imagine a Joe Satriani song that rips and shreds all over the place with no melody to grab ahold of us upon first listen. It isn’t a wonder that most pop music is a blend of simple choruses backed by more complex melodies. Psychologically speaking, this could be related to the Yerkes-Dodson law which dictates that humans perform simpler tasks better with higher arousal rates and more complex tasks better with lower arousal rates. Of course, over arousal meets the cliff’s edge where no task is simple enough. This helps explain why we turn that stereo knob down looking for an address while circling the block. We want music that stimulates us, but we don’t want our brains overworking to find the backbeat.
Needs more necks

So why do shrieking guitar wizards like Satriani, Vai, and Malmsteen have a huge following? This reminds of the terrible, awful, disgusting movie that is Mr. Holland’s Opus. The one thing I took out of that movie was how he listened to Coltrane over and over and over again until he enjoyed it. This, in psychological terms, makes perfect sense. After ingesting complexities we begin to understand them more and thus enjoy them more. Isn't this how seemingly every song appears to us? I mean, I never truly like a song until about the third or fourth listen, and any song I immediately enjoy, I inevitably end up in disgust of it. There are a few gems that ring true in the tiny little amp in the bottom of my soul every single time, from the first play to the last, but those are rarities indeed. No one becomes a jazz fan overnight. 

There have been several studies that back this idea up, but it doesn’t take the brain of C.C. Deville to figure out that "Happy Birthday" gets boring immediately and Miles Davis becomes intriguing after the intricacies groove repeated neural pathways in our minds. I remember the first time I was introduced to Davis’ Kind of Blue. I thought, “This is the record that musicians ogle over?” Today, I can easily distinguish each song and follow along in my mind with much pleasure.

I often wonder if this is what happened with Seven Mary Three and me. In my late teens, I became enveloped by a group of guys that touted rock music like it could save your life and wreck your life all in the same swoop, like rock was this omniscient being that required attention to its every facet. Seven Mary Three was their band. Like any teen of the 90s, I loved "Cumbersome" and the still-creeps-me-out "Water’s Edge," but it wasn’t like they liked them. They were in the fan club, could sing all the lyrics, and liked every. single. song. Did drinking all night long and listening to the newly released Orange Ave. one summer bias me, conditioning me to love Seven Mary Three? I’ll never know, and I don’t care. Seven Mary Three seemingly still kicks out good music to this day, but why then have they never found the success of a Pearl Jam or the Stone Temple Pilots? 

Not only that, but I am most certainly predisposed to 90s alterna-grunge. A friend of mine has this theory that people cut their hair as an adult according to the haircut they had at the moment in life when they were the happiest. This is surely why we see mid-40s divorcees rock the Farrah Fawcett once in a while. Well, I think this is pretty similar to music. We love the music we grew up with and find music we hear later to be subpar for the most part. There is that nostalgic emotional linkage to the past. After all, I didn't lose my virginity to a Miley Cyrus song. It was actually a Billy Ray Cyrus song…I only wish.

All joking aside, these biases collected over time make us think our music is better, that it means more. Like discovering Nirvana before they dropped Nevermind makes their music better somehow. There are radio stations all over the country dedicated to this theory. Every college town has a radio station that plays the music of about 10-15 years ago. When I was attending college in the late 90s, it was 80s: R.E.M., Pixies, U2, Genesis, Tom Petty, and the likes, with the DJ proclaiming that he loved Husker Du before they were Husker Du. College kids all grown up with nice-paying jobs in control of what the public listens to and still touting their music as the “right” music. Now it’s 90s rock, but where does it go from there? Music is so fragmented now.

Why do we even like music in the first place? There is literature that points to romanticism. Some evolutionary theories point to its ability to facilitate tribal bonds and keep peace. A recent study found that women aged 18-22 are most likely to give out their numbers when men are packing, not a puppy, not a sports bag, but a fucking guitar. I’m sure those figures drastically change in the 30+ age category when the women understand that struggling guitar players don’t buy diapers and pay the mortgage. This just gives us another level of mystery into why we like some songs and hate others.

Another point that must be made involves gangster rap. When I was in sixth grade, if you didn’t have a 2 Live Crew or N.W.A. tape, you were not cool. What made it cool? The lyrics, right? Gangster rap probably doesn’t stand its ground without gratuitous language. There was a time in which I only bought cassette tapes that had the parental advisory warning on them. Maybe this was the secret to Use Your Illusion selling so many copies. With this said, we don’t just listen to gangster rap solely because of the curse words, it has to have a dope beat. We don’t just listen to Adam Sandler because he talks about jerking off in the women’s shower room, it has to be funny. And we don’t just listen to Trent Reznor because of his dark themes, it has to sound, well…musical.

The reasons we like music are varied, sometimes trivial and sometimes laced with enough emotional baggage to bring down a 737. Sometimes I know why I like a song, other times I have no clue. I know why I like John Denver: it’s peaceful happy music and some part of the contrarian in me makes me love it more because so many prudes are missing out on the joy of Johnny D. I know why I like Motorhead and the Ramones: the sheer brazen punk attitude. I don’t really know why I like Michael Jackson songs. I mean, if we knew for sure whether he did or did not touch young boys, I’d probably bet that he did, but does that affect how I view his music? The answer is: of course it does. Everything affects everything. So the next time a friend or a brother or a mother or a lover says, “I love this song,” ask them why and relish the response, or giggle at their puzzled expressions.

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