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Monday, October 10, 2011

Change his views about the importance of context and lyrics in music

Back before college, I called a lot of music "overrated," often without listening to lyrics. This proved really problematic when trying to articulate why I didn't like the music I'd heard, given that I'd often listened to albums with lots of amazing lyrics... as background music. No wonder I didn't like Nas's hip hop masterpiece Illmatic until years later when I paid attention to the words.

I used to also dismiss the importance of context--that is, the social, historical, personal, cultural experiences from which music emerges, as well as the lenses and perspectives I took for granted in how I viewed music. In my dismissal of albums like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, I really believed that because I didn't hear as many "great songs" as on other soul albums, that album's socially conscious lyrical (as well as instrumental) content was seriously overrated without a particular idea of what I thought was "catchy," which often had a lot to do with what I found familiar in music. I even went so far as to call in to the show Sound Opinions (when it was a local Chicago radio show) and ask whether the album's significance to blacks mattered compared to if the music was good (in my view, of course).

In retrospect, that was messed up.

I've been reading Ronald Radano's book Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music again, which argues, among other insights, that music never exists as "the music itself," without attached contexts or series of meanings that music producers and consumers make within and outside of "just the sound." Radano also points to how even the idea of "music" is primarily a Western cultural construction, and how ideas of the "essence" of black music have been formed often within white colonial contexts. (Despite the book's heavily jargonistic, academic language, it is worth reading for serious students of music and race.)

Readings like this have seriously made me question the importance of the conditions of how and why I listen to music at all. To put it lightly, today I learn a lot about the context from which music emerges. I can now name a recording from every year from 1922 to 2011. I hope I can do more than name the song recorded or released that year; hopefully I can say what the significance of some of the recordings are, historically, commercially, and otherwise. Seriously, name a year, and we'll see what I can do.

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