Sense and Sensuality

I received a CFP in my inbox today that served to rekindle several thoughts simmering in my head since Shadetek went babelfishing

Analysing the Musically Sensuous
Society for Music Analysis Autumn Study Day

University of Liverpool, School of Music

22 November 2008

For most listeners to music, sensuous affect is of primary, perhaps even singular, importance. Our responses to music in everyday situations, ranging from background ambience to pounding film scores to sources of studious contemplation, are mediated through music’s sculpting of sensual, physical, emotional and affective experiences.

Yet when it comes to analyzing the musically sensuous, music theory and analysis have proved stubbornly resistant to (and perhaps even fearful of) engaging with the musically sensuous, often retreating instead into ostensibly more cerebral studies of the musically syntactical. This one-day conference seeks to contribute to the process of redressing that imbalance, not least by acknowledging that separations of the sensuous and syntactical in music are, at best, artificial necessities for study and, at worst, utterly misleading. …

The focus of this conference relates closely to a point Ripley brought up in a comment as well as to my own initial trackback linkthink. And the question of music’s sensuous qualities — esp independent of textual/lexical/syntactic primacy — is one thread in the wide-ranging discussion @ DuttyArtz that has been rather underexplored, in my opinion.

I’ll grant the post-struct folk that we’re always already contained by language/discourse/ideology, but even so a phenomenological account of musical experience should not elide the bodily dimensions of listening/dancing — never mind the pleasures we take in vocal timbres (that Barthesian grain) and rhythms and melodies irrespective (certainly sometimes) of their being saddled to or propelled by words, those ideological phenomena par excellence.

I think we do music a disservice when we impose such narrow confines on the various interpretive frames that musical experience opens into. One of the most convincing exegeses of the listening process in all its complex glory can be found in Steven Feld’s, “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (pdf), which happens to be one of my favorite ethnomusicological essays of all time.

From a more personal standpoint, I can attest that I don’t always listen to lyrics. In fact, I often ignore them — sometimes so habitually that I’ll have heard a song dozens of times, and attended to and noticed all sorts of details in it, but will have no idea what it’s about. I may have developed this listening mode when waist deep in hip-hop tapes, especially in cases when “lyrical skill” — as we sometimes called it back-in-the-day — was sorely lacking, while “flow” — referring more to the voice’s non-lexical performance — was not. Sheeeeet, in some cases, the beat was actually good enough to sustain one’s attn against some truly awful rapping. (A few Gang Starr album cuts come to mind.)

Whether a matter of habit or an active aesthetic choice (or, more likely, something flittering back and forth between the two), I apply this mode of listening across language and genre. It doesn’t matter if it’s Engllish (my first language) or Jamaican English / “patois” (which, mostly, sounds as comprehensible as any English dialect to me at this point) or Spanish (which I kinda understand) or German (which I understand far less) or Portuguese or French or Italian (some cognates here and there) or the hundreds of other languages I might come across in my musical wanderings. I tend to listen to human voices as simply other voices in the musical texture; I pay no mind to phonemes, just phones. Or at least I try.

Indeed, I say tend because I’m not always able to ignore the powerful work that words can do.

If we’re gonna attend to lyrics, as we sometimes do — for better and for worse — then we still have to ask, what good is an injunction to respect, as Shadetek puts it, “artistic intentions”?

Let’s take what seems to be a common limit case in discussions of which songs DJs will play (or not) due to their lyrical content: Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye.” Indeed, it’s the track that Matt himself offers as an example — and calls “a good song” “nastiness aside” (nastiness aside? but i thought that “we really need to make sure that if we’re gonna engage in a style that we’re doing it on all levels, not just formal”).

I disagree that it’s a good song. Catchy as Buju’s melody is, pleasurable as his gruff tones may be, and enjoyable as I find that chintzy, R&B-flavored riddim (which first endeared itself to me via Mad Cobra’s “Flex,” especially given that track’s ability to incite lascivious dancing at high school jams), I find my experience of that song to be constantly, consistently tripped up by Banton’s intolerant vitriol.

If someone’s artistic intent is to urge violence against gays as a way of puffing up his manhood, I’m just not down wit waving the wannabe flag for that one, you feel me? My own urge is the opposite: to disrespect artistic intent, to distort and subvert, to do something like this —

Buju Banton, “Walk Like a Battyboy” (w&w splice)

Now that’s a Buju track I might actually play in the club.

The playful but critical gesture embodied in that mp3 is not gonna make me any friends in Buju’s camp. And, no doubt, it’s gonna ensure that I’ll never set foot in Buju’s camp again. But you know what, I could never be Buju’s friend. Beca’, to be frank, Buju’s an asshole. Simple and plain. (Motherf*ck him and John Wayne.) Even so, I can’t help it — I love ‘Til Shiloh. You done know.

10 thoughts on “Sense and Sensuality

  1. Heya wayne!

    Funny you should bring this up. I think there’s been a recent turn toward something like the non-syntactical in the humanities. Just this spring, there was a weekend workshop called “The Return to Presence,” with a bunch of heavy-hitters like Zizek, Gombrecht, and Mladen Dolar. The conference was pretty much an attempt to re-use Heidegger’s fascination with “presence” to think about the impact of things at levels outside signification.

    Partially in response to poststructuralism’s claims of the determining force of language/signification, the arguments circulating in the room were that language may sometimes determine what counts as real and in what way, it can’t undo already-experienced experience. In a way, it’s like Derrida but with a different conclusion: whereas Derrida reads the failure of signification to represent experience as a sign that presence can only be illusory, the people at this conference read this failure as proof that there must be presence, and we can trace it in the remainders left over after signification. (As you can imagine, this is where Zizek jumps in, twitching and spittling, and declares triumphantly that that this is the Lacanian “indivisible remainer” called Desire.)

    Anyway, a lot of it felt overthought to me, but I think there’s some value in the renewed attention to felt/embodied experience and in the attempt to put into words what falls out after words have done their work.


    p.s. Mladen Dolar’s newest book, “A voice and nothing more” is very much in this vein of thinking, although I don’t yet know what I think of that book.

  2. i’m very impressed with the splice, Mr. Wax.
    you just go on with yr bad self and illustrate them tactics for the people.

  3. To be fair to Buju, he was found not guilty. Whetherr or not that really means anything in the context of the institutionalised homophobia in Jamaica is another question.

  4. fair enough, droid. & I def don’t want to imply that buju’s assholery is limited to that one incident, innocent or guilty. he’s an asshole for many, many reasons.

  5. I’m with the Ivorians (musicians as ‘ambianceurs’) and bjork on this one: i suck at deciphering lyrics so i play it off like caring about them is rockist anyway.. like song lyrics as a deeply personal expression of self.. sounds BORING, no? most people i know who make music *complain* about having to come up with lyics.

    However i feel the lyric point in the babel post b/c its also about unequal AVAILABILITY. like if i really dig a u.s. track i know i can find out the lyrics and have the option if im curious or bored to scope it out and its def annoying to be totally shut out lyrically from some genres.

  6. I’ve also always considered myself a “music-over-lyrics” person but there’s a lot of missing middle ground between those two extremes, Rachel. My girlfriend is far from rockist (she’s an, er, soulist) and would totally agree with Bjork that Dylan has a whiny nasal voice and annoying pseudo-literary lyrics, yet she’s totally hung up on good lyrics. Less so than she thinks (because she pre-judges arrangements and voices as much as any of us do) but she can find a good song with a message she likes and just play it over and over again, memorising the lyrical content.

    For instance, I think I’ve heard the Jerry Butler/Betty Everett duet “Let It Be Me” nearly a hundred times by this point. The lyrics are far from remarkably literary, yet she can totally nail every word if asked to. Like with any song, the process starts off with a shorter snippet catching her attention, a “moment” in music and lyrics – in this case the exchange that starts “Each time…” – or a word, or a metaphor, or a feeling… and that’s what keeps her attention during the process too.

    The thing is, I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as “interpretation though music” versus “interpretation through lyrics” – the two interact in popular music to a very great extent, and modify each others meaning. The “Each Time…” exchange would never have caught her attention, I think, if it hadn’t ended in a half-cadence. But it wouldn’t have done so without the vocal contrasts either or the way the lines are set up to finish on “Love” three times and then not. Etc. etc. It’s a damn complex thing, musical appeal.

  7. Again, I highly recommend the Steve Feld article for an appropriately variable, complex account of the listening process, at least from the perspective of linguistics or communications. I think there’s still plenty to debate about musical meaning and the primacy or containment of signification / syntax / language, but that puts us more in the realm of philosophy, as Luis notes. Reading Feld, tho, might help to check what can veer into exagerration in these discussions as we seek to take / articulate our positions, the ways we listen.

    Also, just for the record, there are certainly times when I attend very closely, if not primarily, to lyrics. This was and is very true for a lot of my engagement with hip-hop. I have been known, after all, to pen a prolix verse or two myself – not that I would ever demand that anyone else attend to such texts.

  8. Hey there! I have to confess that I have a tendency to not listen to lyrics in music I consider “dance” music. In RMAL years ago I got into a flame war because I said that sometimes it is an advantage to not comprehend spanish, because it enables the listener to enjoy songs that otherwise would be impossibly trite or idiotic. The friend I was arguing with disagreed, citing such things as the artist’s intended message etc. I respect intent, but I we all take from art what we want, and that may not be what the artist intended. It be that way.

    In the absense of semantically appealing lyrics, “flow” and the music make it ok to me if the lyrics arent offensive. I can tolerate silliness or nonsense vocals. “tra tra tra perreando!” “a wop bop a loo bop”; in fact I rather enjoy the ingenuity it takes to throw together some words that sound good, to hell with the meaning.

    (I’ve been bored and have been spending my time analyzing the phonology of songs with “good flow”. When dealing with reggaeton, there isnt really much to ponder lyrically OTHER than flow.)

    I invent my own lyrics to most songs I like, so if a song is totally appealing to me musically but the lyrical content just gets me down, I dont listen to the song itself, but sing it with my own little tweaked version. My cousin and I have done that since about 1990, we add the most ridiculous nonsense lyrics that we can as our way of mocking the artists.

    However, when the singing and the lyricism are both excellent, I love it. I love the combination of Hector Lavoe, or Ismael Rivera and Tite Curet Alonso. I think the music, the singing and the meaning all work together perfectly. I could not fully appreciate the music or the singing without understanding the lyrics of “Periodico de Ayer”, for example. I need the meaning to give meaning to what Im feeling, if that makes sense.

    But not all stuff needs to be understood to be enjoyed fully, imo.

    I love reading “If we’re gonna attend to lyrics, as we sometimes do”. Usually when reading about salsa, the writer automatically downgrades songs if the lyrics arent up to par, that the meaning could be considered “optional” isn’t even considered. Heresy!!! To approach it from this angle- I like.

  9. The splice is pure gold – can’t wait to try this with an informed gay crowd – should kill it.

    What about TOK and Chi Chi Man? Another song with a problematic social message, but does the hype musical content justify giving it a spin?

  10. About attending to lyrics or not… I get the impression that those of us who don’t always pay close attention to lyrics are more likely to grok music as not being mere communication. Feld has frequently given us ammo to answer the “music as language” folks but I’m still surprised at how common it is for some people (especially Anglos, actually) to condescend on others for not having understood “what the song was about.”

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