Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I don't know if popular song is explicitly designed to attach itself to moments in time, but it certainly seems to do this quite a lot with me. Perhaps it is due to its directness, or what purists alternately call its general lack of subtlety (fairly?). Devoted readers will find the following line of thinking familiar: while I firmly believe it has several artistic merits, I won't deny that popular song generally does not reach the level of structural complexity needed to withstand the level of scrutiny that other forms of high-art receive; but my personal inclination is to ignore this. By which I mean that I find the disconnect between the theoretical and the practical sufficiently large for me to focus on the latter. In doing so I don't mean to dismiss the potential limits in the form as being irrelevant, but rather to assert that the medium has given some tangible strength and force to my life. And that is why I continue to give it attention.

Indeed, I have been thinking lately that popular song often serves primarily as a canvas on which I project myself. Consequently, the pleasure might be not so much from something inherent in the music, but rather from the contours of my own mind, places only awakened through this very "primal" music. Recent listens to old Dylan favourites corroborate this line of thinking, and also brings up the classic lyrics-as-poetry issue. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes Dylan's lines are a bit impenetrable, and not as infused with a sense of purpose as one would expect from a Poet. But I feel this analysis is from a reading of the lines, rather than a listening of them. Who knows why it makes such a big difference, and if Dylan was conscious of this? But, for me anyway, there is a big difference, and I still find myself experiencing the same breathlessness at a good Dylan song as I do when recalling a particularly beautiful couplet. The pleasure comes from the way his lines dance inside my mind, and the images they conjure. Discerning what makes the words powerful when sung seems akin to asking why a particular melody can bring one to tears. (Perhaps there is an explanation, but I don't particularly care to find out.)

With all this is mind, it gives me a new perspective on that elusive notion of soul that is commonly associated with popular song. Whatever structural problems it might have, I believe one can't objectively deny this quality, which loosely corresponds to the visceral thrill the music inspires. There's a related Xgau concept, the "emotional complexity" of rock music. I feel like these are all trying to pin down why the music can be as pleasurable as it is. My contribution to the matter: maybe we're looking in the wrong place to explain popular song. Maybe the emotional complexity is not of rock music but of ourselves.

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