Express Yourself

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January 15, 2011

Inauthentic Melodies

How much music is too much music? I ask myself this question quite frequently, as I rapidly approach an inordinate amount of music. I have more music than most rational people — I certainly have more than I can reasonably listen to — yet when I meet people with more music than me, I feel oddly empty. I definitely don’t intimately know all of my music, as perhaps some argue we should commune with it. Following, then, one has to consider what it means to like a certain band, a certain artist, or a certain genre.

While there are some artists that I love that I know a great deal about, I confess that I don’t know everything about every artist I listen to. And that puts me in a difficult position, because, at least to me, there’s a certain question of authenticity when deciding what bands one likes, especially since the proliferation of internet distribution models have made the acquisition of an endless amount of music all together too easy. Before, if you wanted to discover new bands, you had to listen to the radio, talk to friends, or hang out in trading centers. There was a whole underground network of people that seemed to exist only to propagate their favourite artists. Tapes would trade hands, vinyls would be sold, and word-of-mouth buzzed eagerly in people’s ears. Now, the internet removes much of the mysticism from digging through new artists’ catalogues, but that doesn’t make it any better or any worse. However, that doesn’t mean that problems of authenticity don’t arise.

So, again, what does it mean to authentically like an artist? Is identifying the lead singer enough, or should one know every member of the band? What about song knowledge: should one be able to sing along to the majority of songs? Is just recognizing them enough? What about meaning and history? The question quickly becomes ensnarled in opinion and dogma; authenticity is ephemeral, personal and almost always irrelevant in the larger context.

Because I have so much music, it is difficult to expect that I know everything about all of my artists (though there’s nothing more I would love to do than to be able to do that). And so, some music I necessarily only like on a more superficial level, while there’s a select upper echelon that I commune with on a much more intimate level. For instance, there is rarely a moment in the Beatles’ catalogue that doesn’t make me stop and think about the lyrics, usually in admiration for the incredible level of craftsmanship in the music. On the other hand, I appreciate King Crimson musically, and enjoy their complexity, but I just listen to it, I rarely spend much time thinking about it. It is true, then, that I like the Beatles much more than I like King Crimson (and though I have been listening to the Beatles for as long I can remember and I’ve only just discovered King Crimson, I doubt that that relationship will change anytime soon), but does that make my taste in King Crimson inauthentic? Do I like King Crimson just because I like Pink Floyd?

That is indeed how I discover a lot of my music. I take a look at my favourite artists and look for their contemporaries, their influences, and, in the case of classic rock, bands that came after them. I take a look at what genre they’re in and other bands within the same genre; I look at solo projects and collaborations. Like a dye running through arteries and capillaries, I branch out from the centre in search of new music. Sometimes it takes me to entirely new scenes that I never would have thought I could enjoy, and sometimes I run into a dead end and find nothing worth listening to. But that begs the question, would I like these artists if I had found them independently, or do I like them in relation to other artists, genres and movements?

In the end, what music a person likes is necessarily defined in relations: it can either be artists that are similar, artists that are completely different, or even something as completely banal and removed as the fact that the pretty girl you like likes them. There is a whole set of structures that go ahead and arbitrarily ascribe perceptions of authenticity and legitimacy to musical preferences. There are a whole set of aesthetics that play themselves out unconsciously and invisibly when deciding what music is decent, what music sucks, and what music will be on repeat until the end of time. And, just as there are infinitely complex relations and relationships in a person’s life, so too is there an infinite amount of music to accompany. Problems of authenticity and legitimacy aren’t just problems of music, they are problems of reality as well.

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