Listening in Tongues

Lately, I've been thinking about the ways people listen to music: on headphones; from car speakers; at clubs; at home while getting dressed, cooking, dining, or reading the paper; singing along; paying attention; not paying attention. I've been thinking about listening too--what "listens" exactly when you listen to music: ears, memory, body, the conscious, the unconscious, all of the above? How you listen to music seems to me related to what you believe music is for: excitement, incitement, relaxation, meditation, beauty, disturbance, ownership, company, understanding, protest, aerobics.

I've been thinking about these questions because it's the time of the year when people in my field--critics, that is--are driven to make best-of lists and parade them before you all and, most especially, each other. These lists would like to appear absolute and definitive. They've been stripped of their subjective context: how the critic heard and what she expected to hear. You might see Sleater-Kinney's Call the Doctor at the top of my list and not be aware that its angry contradictions on the subject of identity--private and public, historical and experiential--nourished me like a truth I'd known but needed to hear like a tree waits for rain.

A list doesn't tell you that Fugees's apocalyptic ghetto mythology--rooted in history, steeped in soul and spirituality, its anger aimed, finally, at the enemy outside--spooked me like gangsta doesn't. A list doesn't say that the cool, worn voice of Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn tastes to me like vodka martinis and a hundred morning afters. A list won't reveal that Stereolab's bubbly sound made me laugh or that Tricky's bleakly inventive soundscapes dried my mouth and shivered my spine. Tricky made my Top 10 because his music discomfits me; Lois's Infinity Plus, because it sings me back to me. I listen to music 30 different ways; my judgment depends on that context--the hows and whys.

Which is why I'm irritated by other critics' claims of objectivity, and by these dictatorial year-end summaries. For instance, I don't fault pale, hip-hop lovin' guys for finding and celebrating performers who mirror back at them all their conflicted love and need. But some (white and male) critic has already declared DJ Shadow's Entroducing ... "the hip hop album of the year." Hey, c'mon everybody--let's scrape away those troublesomely articulate (ah yes, black) voices, and give it up for one suburban white kid's Wizard of Oz journey to the Ebony City. Let's go get Beck to tell us where it's really at. Sigh. Dig if you will, fellas. But don't assume that the rest of us should be similarly transfixed.

White male critics seem to admire Entroducing because it's a DJ/electronic album that makes rational sense; you could call it conceptual even. But why is rational meaning, a comfortably ordered noise, so attractive to those critics? And what if a music makes sense in ways less accessible to critical thinking? I find DJ Shadow overbearing, overwrought, and overdone, like an exegesis on doodling. And I think his current deification signifies nothing less than a communal ducking in the face of what dub- and dance-derived music has demanded of us: a new critical language that respects such vernaculars of as-yet indistinct meaning as the tongues of the body, the measurements of space, and the wisdom of tides.

My sister critics of the last decade have bravely brought desire into the "objective" discourse on popular music, but, I'm sorry, that's only the beginning. The body knows more than lust. Going out to meet DJ/electronic music in its den--where speakers capable of filling stadiums with sound throw their watts against the four walls of a cramped basement--makes your body the translator. You have to stop up your ears if you want to save them. You feel bass like thunder in your chest. Snare rattles in your cortex more intimate than thoughts. If you try to protect yourself from the noise, your head will ache, your heart will beat wrong. If you don't--if you move to it--you will enter the beats so far it feels like you yourself are playing them.

Needless to say, I am concerned that this music is being judged by people sitting in chairs with headphones on. What comes off meandering or chaotic or repetitive or meaningless in that situation may feel revelatory when one is dancing amongst sounds as present as beams of light. I try to listen on 'phones, and even the music that still fascinates me--Spring Heel Jack, the Mad Professor's remixes of Massive Attack, Alec Empire, Scarab--repels my conscious attempts to make meaning of it. I can break this music down into parts--where the samples come from and what is done to them--but in its entirety it refuses my intelligence. My mental intelligence, that is. Drum'n'bass makes all sorts of sense to my physical self: It was only by moving to it that I understood--was moved by--its sadness and determination, its hurry and stillness, a body patois of the uprooted.

So, given that DJ parties may be rare in some necks of the woods, and that dancing critics are still rarer, how is one to judge electronic music? I think the most critics can do for now is allow themselves to be moved--in both senses--at the same time they question their movement: to be analytic, in other words, about reporting feelings. Meanwhile, I for one am trying to practice listening to this music with my conscious mind derailed. I listen while cooking, driving, and drawing; I listen for flow and tightness and corners and space; I listen to the way my shoulders, listening, bunch up--or my lungs, enraptured, seem to stretch out before me like sails. There is wisdom to be had here. And a politics deeper than Democrat vs. Republican, a politics concerning the accepted parameters of being, a politics that wonders why we expect so little of ourselves.

P.S. A blessing and a thanks to Townes Van Zandt, who lived fast and died old in the first week of this new year. Earthier than Gram Parsons, flightier than Guy Clark, the skinny Texan made incandescent albums (especially Nashville Sessions) in the early '70s, balancing vision against dread, movement against defeat, folk with country and rock. But all that firebreathing strafed his throat, and heroin dulled his vision. He returned two years ago with No Deeper Blue as a mad loner, the former moody rock & roll rebel "grown-up" to itinerant homelessness and an outsider's rough wisdom. Neither burned out nor rusting, he already seemed to have left time behind.

Favorite Albums:

1. Sleater-Kinney Call the Doctor (Chainsaw)

2. Tricky, etc.Nearly God (Island)

3. FugeesThe Score (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

4. StereolabEmperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra)

5. Cibo Matto Viva! La Woman (Warner Brothers)

6. Spring Heel Jack68 Million Shades . . . (Island import)

7. Everything But the Girl Walking Wounded (Atlantic)

8. DJ SpookySongs of a Dead Dreamer (Asphodel)

9. TrickyPre-Millenium Tension (Island)

10. Lois Infinity Plus (K)

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