Most days, I feel like I have a pretty clear definition of what I like about music: I like compelling, rhythm-based songs built on clever ideas. Not a lot to it. Add a horn section to that definition, and you’ve got yourself a lock on any number of my favorite songs. Now, there are other things out there in the world that I like—clipping my fingernails, my girlfriend’s cooking, poker, reality television shows involving P. Diddy—and on most days I have pretty clear definitions of why I like those things. Also, there are things I don’t like—tomatoes, sweatpants, reality television shows involving Joe Rogan, brushing my teeth.
With music I can and do quantify the things I listen to (as
some of who know me or read this column well know.) I have even come up with a ten point scale to
rate how well I like a given song, with ten being the awesomest and one being
the least awesome. For example, if a ten
is Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me,” and a one is Wolf Eyes’ “Stabbed In
The Face,” then a four is Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” and a six is H-Town’s
“Knockin’ Da Boots.” While I don’t rank
and file Diddy vehicles or hygiene issues with the same voracity as I do music,
it’s fair to say that I live my life with a certain amount of order.
And then something comes along and blows my mind.
Yesterday I listened to Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup for the first time in a long time, and I
realized many things. I don’t feel like
I’ve spent a large amount of time with that album—I’ve listened to it once
every couple of years, and I’ve owned it for about eight years. Yet, each song greeted me like an old
familiar friend. No song fell below a
seven (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special”), and I felt like I knew, and
was excited about, what was coming even though I generally feel like I don’t
know the songs very well. Emperor Tomato Ketchup being an
immaculate album, this is unremarkable except for a couple of things: First, I
feel like I have this exact same experience of rediscovering that I love it
every time I listen to it; secondly, I tend to forget everything about it
shortly after listening to it, hence, only listening once every couple of
So I have no idea how to classify this kind of music—stuff
that I love, but simultaneously feel totally distant from. If it were like my girlfriend’s cooking—I
anticipate it, I enjoy the experience of it, I get excited about the next time
it will happen—I would know what to do with it.
If it were like sweatpants—it makes me feel icky, I try to avoid it, I
ridicule people associated with it—I would know how to feel about it. But Emperor
Tomato Ketchup is a different beast altogether—the music is iconic and
wonderful, but immediately forgettable.
Then, there’s the nagging feeling that I have the same experience with
other albums—I just can’t remember what they are!
I suppose I should just enjoy the discovery (or rediscovery, as it were) of music that touches me in the warm places. But the pleasure centers of my brain tell me there’s something more to it. Does music have to etch out a permanent place in your consciousness to be good? What does it mean when music feels familiar, but isn’t? Is that a good thing? Is there such a thing as iconic music, and does it exist in a realm other than what we typically listen to? Who are you people, and what are you doing in my head?
*All opinions in this column subject to change.
-Martin Brown, 2008