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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Examine the intersections of race and disability in listening to music

Because of Asperger's, I'm literal--I don't know how else to put it. I have trouble understanding figures of speech and sometimes detecting sarcasm and reading social cues generally. So when I listen to a piece of music that I love, it takes a while to understand what it "means"--I have written about how I used to not pay attention to lyrics, which could prove problematic when enjoying some music with heavily violent and sexist language (like some gangsta rap, for example).

Still, to this day when I first hear a piece of music, I listen to it passively, taking in the overall "sound": the arrangement, the way a singer or instrumentalist phrases words, sometimes words that I don't "get." A great example of how I listen to music is seen in my favorite record, Otis Redding's 1966 soul classic, "Try a Little Tenderness." It's not exactly the subtlest or most nuanced rendering of a song ever made, but certainly an incredible arrangement that augments Otis's intensity (think of the "Got-ta, got-ta" phrases) and underscores what I remember a guest years ago on VH1 calling the "orgasmic" tendencies of Otis's phrasing.

So perhaps my idea of greatness in music has little to do with subtlety, though Otis could affect me with minor breaks in his voice (in "These Arms of Mine," for example). I must confess, it took me a while to connect my reaction to Otis's music with Asperger's--I recently read a small part of music historian Brian Ward's book Just My Soul Responding, which points out that Otis was not the most nuanced of singers or interpreters, which fed into 1960s-era whites' love of his music--they sometimes romanticized what they viewed as black musicians' hyper-sexuality, glorifying particularly Otis's music for perhaps fitting the stereotypical images they projected onto blacks in general.

Now, I think the way I listen to music has more to do with having Asperger's than being white, but perhaps they overlap here: I wonder how blacks, for example, with Asperger's hear the music they love, if they also have trouble with subtlety. I sometimes need the analysis of critics or historians to help me understand what a song is "about." Hopefully, over time I'll be able to figure out on my own to not respond to a figurative lyric like Michael Jackson's "Beat It" with a literal interpretation like, "Beat what?"

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