Thursday, October 1, 2009

One Degree of Separation

What makes a particular kind of music connect with an individual?

Music we like can be perplexing if overanalyzed. When I was growing up, nothing brought instant coolness cache than the type of music you professed to love. You could say the names of the right artists and gain immediate heft in your personality when mentioed to others. Music you like associates itself to you as a label more quickly and more easily than almost any other label a person can acquire.

Few things tell as much about a person as their personal music collection, in its entirety. Sure, everybody will admit to the well-regarded, well-respected music in their collection. But how many will tell openly about songs they like that are frankly an embarrassment. Actually, you can tell even more about a person by the music they dislike. If I told you that a certain friend disliked most current popular music and only cared for the Beatles and The Beach Boys, that says something about that person, does it not. Or if someone professed to really not caring about jazz, that would help you make an instant opinion about them, right? And admit it, if someone said that they only liked country music, you have a picture of them already in your mind. Or if someone only liked music from the eighties. Or if classical music is their favorite. Stereotypes jump out of your brain and fix labels on those people before you can control them with self-correcting political correctness.

Almost everyone loves a particular style of music, or songs, or artists that they are ashamed of revealing to others. Either because that music/song is not popular by current standards, or is from a long forgotten era, or is from an artist who is currently a laughing stock. People have the distinct fear of being told, "surely you do not own that CD?". Or "please tell me you are not a fan of that song". So I suspect there is a lot of hiding that goes on when it comes to musical tastes. I would suggest that the music on most people's iPod is an incomplete collection of what they truly love, because they dare not have others go through their iPod and find therein, songs of questionable taste.

Which gets me to thinking, what really makes us like a song? Almost in spite of ourselves. Sometimes it is simple association with what was popular at a certain critical portion of your life. But more often than that, it is just voodoo. Unexplainable. You cannot help but like what you do and the best you can do is try to deny outright to liking it. But the fact that you connect with some songs at an almost primal level is hard to ignore. It is something fundamental, and as hard as it may sound, perhaps something to celebrate because this connection with a particular kind of music or song is so uniquely wired into your personal DNA.

So what really makes us like a song? I cannot answer this for others, but for me I have only very recently begun to understand how this works for me. And I find it brilliant in its simplicity. For me it is always a song that sounds familiar the first time I hear it. That's it. You listen to it the first time, and it seems comfortable - and - seemingly resonates at the very same frequency as something within you.  You never know when you are going to listen to something, on the radio, or in someone's car, which is going to sound immediately familiar to you. And it can be the tackiest, silliest thing, but there you have it. It has somehow ingratiated itself into your fiber. This does not happen often, so I have learned to cherish it, as exasperating as it may sometimes get.

This happened most recently for me when I listened to the CD, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much", by Mika. The first song, "We Are Golden" was fine, but based on the previous CD from the same artist, "Life In Cartoon Motion", I had expected more. But one minute into the second song, "Blame It On the Girls", and I was moving my head along like, yes, I had known it my entire life. The reaction was even more visceral for the third song, "Rain"; this one had me singing along at the first listen as if it had been my personal anthem growing up. I love it when this happens. Who knows when very specific music will connect instantly with unknown individuals around the world who otherwise have nothing in common with the artist who created it. An immediate One Degree Of Separation.

The best songs, I think, are the ones which manage to do this with the most number of people. The kind of song that gets into your head and will not leave it for days. It is a minor pleasure in life, I think, to have the ability to resonate like this, with a piece of music, completely outside our personal control.

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