Once again, if nothing’s else has been made evident throughout these 30 Days (har!) of Songs, it’s that I don’t readily subscribe to objective ideas about the “goodness” or “badness” of music. Maybe it’s that I don’t know enough about music theory to truly understand the hallmarks of good composition. But, even then, I know I enjoy things that turn those conventions on their ear – and my make other people want to cover up their own ears. Audio collage, glitch music, mashups, even the occasional bit of musique concrete – though I’m first to admit that I don’t exactly enjoy the sounds themselves, I enjoy thinking about how those sounds were collected, arranged, fixed, copied, distributed. Why these sounds, why at these times, why in these conjunctions. It both satisfies and frustrates my pattern-seeking behavior.
A tangent, but I sometimes wonder if that’s not a thing I do rather often: intentionally expose my brain to some source of unnecessary conflict so that it has a problem to solve. Take my room, for instance. Never in all my life have I been able to keep my room clean. Sure, part of it is the fact that I get tired easily when cleaning – but wouldn’t that be all the more incentive to clean small bits every day? Like a responsible person? No, instead, I let things pile up to atrocious levels, so much so that finding anything, including the basics like my wallet, my keys, my shoes, and even my goddamn pants, goes from a straightforward act to a half-hour mystery. Where did I put them last? What have I moved since then that might possibly have buried them? Did I move something on top of the thing that I moved on top of the thing I’m looking for? It’s obvious that my life would be easier if I just used shelves, drawers, and closets for their intended purpose, so, seriously, why the hell don’t I take that little extra effort — unless it’s actually the case that I enjoy making things difficult for myself?
Of course, it’s more the case that I just don’t see small amounts of messiness as problems at all – especially not compared with the pulsating Junk Shoggoth that has inhabited most of my rooms for most of my life. So you take that high tolerance level (a few dirty dishes and empty packages aren’t worth bothering with,) compounded with frog-boiling (so a few more dishes aren’t worth bothering with either,) perhaps compounded further with some lingering low expectations (if I’m awful enough to have made this much of a mess, I obviously deserve to live with it,) and there you go – a nicely self-perpetuating problem. I could save myself a lot of time, effort, and frustration if I just expended trivial amounts of energy on a more regular basis, obviously, but I can never seem to calibrate my giveadamnometer such that it actually registers these small problems as anything worth expending effort over.
I guess that sets up an interesting challenge, then: try to get my room completely clean, maintain it for at least one month, and see what problems I solve (or create) elsewhere.
But! We’ve established that, both in the abstract and the real, I have a high tolerance for low rigor: for dissonance and disharmony and mess and flux. In short, for all the things that arguably make for Bad Music.
So, as with so many of these prompts, this may come down to another game of Define Your Terms. What’s meant here by “good?” Technically proficient? Enjoyable? Catchy? What’s supposed to differentiate this from Day 03’s “A Song You Know Is Horrible But Love Anyway?”
Perhaps it’s just that Day 03’s songs are supposed to be technically faulty, discordant, or insipid, but I like them anyway… and today’s songs are supposed to be musically sound, but unpopular and widely derided.
That still doesn’t make much sense, though. If it’s only about being technically sound, what’s the point of saying it’s a song you think is good? Even if we handwave that, and assume it really is about being technically sound… where’s the embarrassment supposed to come from? I mean, sure, I know I’m incredibly pedantic, fond of overanalyzing things, and moreover fond of sharing my pithy little insights with anyone who makes eye contact for too long, often well past the point where I should be feeling socially awkward. But, honestly, once I start evaluating whether or not I should be embarrassed about anything I’m liking, saying, or doing, it just results in me holing up in my room for a few days, talking to nobody, just reading books and eating junk food. And not cleaning up the wrappers.
I guess the difference here is that Day 03’s songs are ones that I think are horrible, and today’s songs are ones that I believe other people think are horrible. And that’s where the embarrassment comes from. It’s the difference between saying “I like this stupid song,” and between saying “I like this song” and hearing someone else call it stupid.
Of course, I don’t really have any good sense of what other people would find stupid. And, having grown up in a fairly small town with relatively little access to media and even less to do, extracting every last bit of enjoyment from even the most tepid, boring, or outright insipid thing wasn’t just a way to get more for your money, it was an outright survival skill. If the world around you is trying to bore you to death, find something interesting in it. So some of these aren’t songs that I’m really “embarrassed” to say that I like – they’re just ones that I suspect your average Joe would laugh at me for, and the ones for which I might throw up my hands and say “Look, I can explain…”
I suspect I should probably be embarrassed about liking “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk, if just because it’s one of those upbeat pop anthems. They always have the same problem, these anthems: there’s a wonderful span of a week where the song is new to you, and you read yourself into it, and you feel like it’s, in some way, Your Song, inspiring you to defy convention. But then it gets overplayed, and it gets familiar, and it becomes convention, and it seems to become as toothless as anything at a high school pep rally. But the message is still good, though, and it does still remind me of my beloved Weirdo Contingents through the years. Besides, it’s already “cool” to defy convention; maybe it’s even cooler to keep enjoying things even when the mainstream tries to sweep it away.
Also, I should be embarrassed about liking the song just because she sings “What the dealio.”
Similarly anthemic, similarly poppy, similarly reminding me of my weirdo friends: Aqua’s “Cartoon Heroes.” Avatars and cartoons have their similarities, after all. But, come on. How can I resist those beginning drums? The way it slows down in the middle and speeds back up again? The sing-alongable refrain? And no matter how nonsensical the rest of the lyrics are, I can’t help loving the line “What we do is what you just can’t do.” As someone who spends a dang lot of time doing creative things, coming up with characters who are uniformly more capable than I am, there’s something stirring in that – this idea that our fictions can be more powerful than our realities, and that imagination really can save the day. One can hope, right?
But if you want storytelling and bombast – and I sure do – and a shameless pulling of the emotional strings, I can look no further than Meat Loaf. I’ve already mentioned how Bat Out Of Hell II was, in many ways, the soundtrack of my precocious adolescence. It’s basically what puberty sounds like. And if that’s not a little awkward, nothing is. It’s the soundtrack of a time when every feeling seemed to fill my entire body, when nothing was ever a half-measure, when the intensity of everything was cranked up to 11. Everything louder than everything else.
I suppose the embarrassing thing isn’t that I liked that music then, or that I’m still fond of it now. It’s that I actually miss feeling so emotionally overwhelmed. Sure, I was far too sensitive; sure, it was incredibly counterproductive. It was hard to relate to other people; it was hard to be myself. But I can’t think of many times in recent years when I’ve had such a powerful depth of feeling as I did when I was young. Little joy has been so joyful, and even grief – despite actually having experiences worth grieving, now – has rarely seemed so profound.
Sure, this is maturity: the competent handling of one’s emotions, the ability to set aside your feelings and do unpleasant things, the understanding that your subjective experience of being yourself is not remotely important to anyone but yourself, and the only thing that matters is what use you are to other people. But, selfishly, I sometimes miss it. I miss being able to get hopelessly wrapped up in sentimentality and that strange, strangled selfishness that thought I was special somehow, important somehow, magical somehow. Even when it was just my firm belief that I was absolutely worthless and disgusting, it was still a feeling of specialness: I was THE most worthless, THE ugliest. Number One at being number none.
Of course, even that burned out for a long time, and I tried to be as devoid of feeling and subjectivity as possible. And, as I tried to figure out how to be a people again, there was a sort of second adolescence, another time when everything felt almost unbearably vivid, when every nerve seemed raw, when every experience seemed heightened. And now? Now I have a general sense that, even though a lot of things suck pretty hard, everything’s still going to be sort of okay on average, just because I’ll adapt to whatever the hell happens. That’s probably the most even-handed approach you could practically have: not so much optimism you believe everything will just work for you, not so much pessimism you believe nothing will ever work no matter what you do, just the general notion that you have agency over some things, and not over others, and you’ll probably come through okay no matter what, but it really doesn’t matter either way.
It’s rather dispassionate, really – not as dispassionate as I’ve been in the past, for sure, but arguably still less engaged than I’d prefer. I don’t necessarily want to wear my heart on my sleeve again, and I don’t want to keep it buried. It’s there, and it beats, and I know I can’t ask for much else. But wouldn’t it be nice if, just a little bit more often, I could really feel something deeper, warmer, more sincere, without having it be ignored or eyerolled at or turned into a joke? Without being embarrassed? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could share that feeling with someone else, and have it shared with me? I don’t think the world works like that, though; we’re all aliens to each other, and nobody can trust anybody enough to try. Meaning isn’t something Out There, it’s something we make – but, even with flawless communication, you can never be certain that anyone else even understands you, much less shares your feelings. When you say a word, can you be sure the other person knows what it means, or knows the nuances around the reason you chose it? When you don’t say anything at all, but try to express things through body language, facial expressions, the ways you show your moods, can you be sure anyone is picking up on those nonverbal cues, either? Maybe not. Which is nice, I guess, because even if they do judge you or make you feel embarrassed, there’s no way to be certain that they even understood you well enough to judge you for the right things.
Even when I was little, I never thought I’d be anything but an outsider. I desperately wanted to fit in, to belong, to have people care about me as much as I cared about them, to matter somehow, despite knowing deep down that I didn’t. I wanted to do something bold enough, brave enough, emotive enough, magical enough, that everyone changed their minds about me and let me in.
I watched this movie a lot as a kid. An obnoxious lot. And, for a good long time, I could relate to that desperate drive to be accepted by this alien society – so desperate that I’d give up anything just to have a shot.
Of course, looking back on it now, there are a lot of flaws with that movie. Ariel signs the contract; it’s in English – but she doesn’t think to write Prince Eric a note at any time? Ariel gets married in the end, sure, but she still barely knows anything about this foreign culture or its customs. It’s still unclear what Eric sees in her besides a pretty face and a pleasant voice. She’s given up everything she’s ever known – her home, her culture, her voice, her anatomy – and I’m just not sure that he’d have done the same for her. If King Triton had zapped Prince Eric into a merman, I’m not sure he’d have been so keen to get married and go along with it. I doubt their happily ever after actually lasted very long.
I guess that’s the ultimate bitter realization of adulthood, the one that makes every other feeling so brutally embarrassing, but also so brutally meaningless: the realization that, no matter what you do or who you’re with or how much you care or what you say, you’re ultimately always alone. Maybe the best you can really hope for is somebody who doesn’t judge you or begrudge you your feelings, someone who doesn’t make you feel embarrassed, no matter what you share. Someone who maybe helps you feel more okay with feeling things and sharing things, whether that’s because they care and will protect you, or because they really don’t care at all and will weather your feelings like a rock weathers the wind. Someone who reminds you that there’s no need to be ashamed of anything you feel — not necessarily because it’s understandable or forgivable or even endearing, but maybe just because feelings are meaningless in the first place, so having feelings about those feelings is even more absurd. I’ve been lucky to have that, and more than that, at a few times in my life – but the first time fell apart in a truly fantastic fashion. The depth and sincerity of my feelings had no bearing on how well anything worked out in the end. And while I’ve got something far, far better than that now… in my more reasonable moments, I still know it’s more than I merit. The world isn’t a Disney movie; love isn’t magical. It doesn’t heal anything, it doesn’t change anything, and maybe it’s just overwhelming emotions that make you believe it means anything. Happily ever after just doesn’t happen, and even understanding-each-other ever after is probably rare. So maybe that ceaseless search for acceptance and belonging and support is prettymuch bullshit – maybe all you can do is find somebody to be alone and confused with.
Or maybe that’s ridiculous, and maybe someday I’ll look back on this and laugh at myself.