"It's not enough to know which notes to play,” according to George Carlin. “You gotta know why they need to be played."
At least, that's what I read on Tiny Mix Tapes. This idea resonates with me in the word documents, journals, emo poems, unsent letters, and scraps of scribbled garbage cluttering my life. I also think of the thousands of romance novels in the used bookstore where I work. Really, how many ways can you say “hot man flesh”? Maybe conviction helps to separate literature from pulp, art from craft, music from noise, and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter from plastic-tasting margarine.
But then, does this idea about having to justify music actually signify a hunger for meaning, now that meaning has become such a subjective idea? My grandmother doesn't question the Bill Gaither Trio's validity any more than she wonders whether or not to put fatback in collard greens. She learned how to think critically before information became so available and deconstruction so trendy. I can't even brush my teeth without wondering if Tom's of Maine will start animal testing now that Colgate owns the brand.
Music, for me, isn't valuable because of how it reflects life — in my case, that would be pretty lame. After the tooth-brushing experience, I dress myself, drive to work, shuffle through bags of used books, order Chinese, check MySpace, read Democracy Now, fantasize about leaving the country, check MySpace again, and wonder why Chuck Norris was slow-dancing with Condoleezza Rice in my dream last night. I'm boring myself just writing this; I'm surprised that you're even still reading it. And now that I've given up drinking, I rely on entertainment to get through the evening stretch.
Rather than reflecting an often mundane existence, music uplifts it. I download it and read about it and write about it and go to shows and dance and, sometimes when I'm feeling really restless at night, I listen to it while I'm going to sleep. And my iPod has helped me learn how to walk miles through city streets and overcome my fear of public transportation. I was at a dance party the other night when someone referred to me as “the girl who never stops dancing” — to which I replied, “This is pretty much the best thing that happens to me.”
What is it about music that makes my life so much better?
I find the beginning of an answer at the Chinese restaurant in the strip mall across from the used bookstore where I work. I am with my good friend Brantley Fletcher and his daughter. Brantley teaches English 101, plays in Plundershop and 12 other bands, collects antiquated recording equipment, and recently made me an artwork called “Ode to the Kazoo” out of a parking sign, duct tape, and crusty fall leaves.
His daughter, a five-year old, says things like, “I tripped over your shoe because I was twirling with joy.” We're sitting in the restaurant eating our Chinese food when she pulls us by hand to the entrance, where goldfish and other fish are swimming in an aquarium. Then later on as we wash our hands in the bathroom, she tells me that she likes the soap because, “It's foamy and looks like vanilla ice cream.”
What is wrong with me? The world is full of vanilla-ice-cream-soap and goldfish and other fish and twirling with joy, and yet all I can think is dang, how many Harlequin novels does a girl have to push to survive?
I'm on the phone with Tyson Vogel from Two Gallants, but it doesn't really seem like an interview. He gets compared to Jesus a lot because of his hair situation, but I think it also has to do with this perma-happy, chill, attentive vibe he seems to emanate whenever I see him. I tell him I've been thinking about how maybe there's this way that music provides a venue for reconnecting with childhood. His answer surprises me.
“It's hard to be aware and present when you're thinking about November of next year. It takes away from the blind innocence and the magic of the moment. I feel like I'm 30, and I'm only 26.
“To hold onto an honesty is a really tough thing. We have both learned how to keep it pure and untouched as possible. We're trying to reveal that innocence which other people can take in, maybe just one grain of. It's meant as an embracing of the losing of self and also the innocence of self: Embracing it all by accepting it all.”
"Did you and Adam have any kind of vision when you first started playing together as kids?"
“It was based off a necessity we both had, and we found a way of doing it together that was really transcendental. We put a face to what we were feeling, and the only way we could do it was through this music. We never wanted to have a plan; we just wanted to follow this wordless direction that was pulling us. It's amazing. It's constantly growing, a weird synchronicity, because deep down we're really similar but also, vastly different. There's something else indescribable about the way we can listen to one another.”
This refers me back to what Carlin said about knowing not just what to play, but why. Perhaps he is alluding to a different sort of knowledge, one that is intuitive and recalls a clear connection that cuts through jaded agendas, ideologies, ego-feeding and other manners of personal corruption. It's a lot of work to re-access the simple conviction of youth.
I hit up Jennifer O'Connor, a Canadian songwriter touring the States this month, via e-mail.
“Your lyrics have a magical-ness (yeah I know that's not a word) to them.”
“I like the idea of my lyrics having a magical-ness — thank you,” she writes. “And I don't care if it's not a word.”
“My favorite song of yours is that one ‘Tonight We Ride.' You create this narrative about going into the sky, seizing power from a kingdom, shooting stars, and that sort of thing. It's almost this storybook kind of picture, and I was wondering if maybe this came from a return to innocence within the structure of storytelling?”
“I guess that song does have sort of a fairytale vibe to it. I think I was trying to express how I really wanted things to be a certain way, work out a certain way — and I do think that it is a kind a return to innocence or naiveté... but I really believe in that sort of thing. What I write comes straight from my heart. There is little irony. Not much of a clever clever factor. Lots of people and writers have called me ‘direct' or ‘simple' — but maybe it's just honest.”
I get really uncomfortable with the idea of music culture as a cannibalistic machine. Musicians feed on their own experiences, and then publicists, record labels, managers, producers, kazoo-makers, and, yes, critics capitalize on that creation. Even the idea of rating music on a scale and hyper-analyzing objectifies it somehow. Making art into a commodity concerns me the way that having “free speech zones” concerns me: how does one keep the form pure in such a volatile and greedy environment? How are we to participate without becoming jaded or compromising ourselves?
“It's good to work with Saddle Creek.” Tyson says, “But the music industry is a really selfish beast. It doesn't take into consideration the people who are making it happen.
“It's a mode, a current you get caught in and just this feeling that pervades. When you already live such a public lifestyle, there are things you get scared of. You are constantly confronted with people and you want to trust them, but it's just complicated because there's a superficiality and a non-committal relationship in never really knowing if they're interested in you as a person or as something they can gain. When you're surrounded by that money, I can imagine losing yourself in a non-trusting way of seeing others — and then not be able to trust yourself.”
I think about how management companies, booking agencies, and PR firms work out a system through which musicians can actually, you know, eat and stuff. Am I growing up? Or, am I beginning to recognize a parent-child structure between the business side and the creative side shared by musicians and fans?
“We have in the past few months realized what shaky ground we're on,” Tyson says. “We're looking on it now and trying to be present. The only thing I want is to keep doing this and support a family, just to be somewhat comfortable and to be able to follow this direction that keeps pulling us and pulling the music so that we're content.”
He reminds me that somehow overcoming the mundane nature of living isn't escapism, but rather a venue for immersion in the present.
“Playing music is in no way intended as distraction. It may be a way of defining within the context of every dawning day. The experience transcends the questions and creates just a process.”
Music, then, could work as a uniting force between the positive aspects of childhood and the necessary fact of growing up. Instead of somehow evading adulthood, I can perhaps achieve equilibrium through the balance of work and play. I can listen to John Darnielle sing about the best metal band to come out of Denton as I drive down the highway to work. And when I'm thinking too hard about whether or not independent, grass-roots music is more inherently pure than the stuff signed and spun, it's nice to just revel in the best thing that really ever happens to me. It's that moment when the switch flips off, I finally quiet the noise of an overactive mind, and I'm able to listen — even, sometimes, to dance.