Music Sounds Better With You
A few months ago, I misheard a Passion Pit lyric. Whilst listening to I’ll Be Alright, a brilliant modern popsong which juxtaposes ecstatic music with melancholy mid-breakup dialogue, I mistook the lyrics to the chorus, hearing the line ‘I won’t let you go unless I’ll be alright’ as ‘I won’t let you go loveless, I’ll be alright.’ A simple misunderstanding, but the two lines imply very different situations; I understood the song to imply its protagonist as still in love with his partner, but recognising that since she is no longer experiencing love, trying to continue the relationship would be pointless (like a reply to James Morrison’s Broken Strings). I subconsciously developed this understanding, due to my mistake and the fact that I was going through a similar situation at the time of listening.
However, this is post is not about breakup songs, as much fun as listening to me drone on about all my favourite heartbreak lyrics would be… No, this is about how music lovers experience music, and the implicit reason why music is my favourite medium of art. Whilst listening to that one Passion Pit song, I created my own meaning for it which became embedded in the music surrounding the lyrics, and though the situation I connected with the song was evidently very different to that which the song was actually written about, this realisation didn’t make my connection any weaker. Essentially, when you listen to music – and I mean really listen, not just appreciate the sounds – you interpret it in your own way, and create your own unique understanding and judgement of it, attaching it to things that you care about in your own life. The process is often subconscious, it facilitates an intense relationship between art and appreciator, and I believe that the best music is the perfect vehicle for it.
Some of my favourite artists clearly bear this process in mind; throughout countless interviews The XX have always refused to explain the specific situations of their lyrics so as not to ruin their fans’ empathy, as Romy XX once explained: ‘you give it out to the world and it becomes a meaning to everyone else’, saying that she wouldn’t ask her favourite artists to explain their lyrics to her if she could, for fear of being left ‘heartbroken, because it’s not my experience [anymore].’ Whilst I don’t believe that knowing the original ‘true’ meaning of a song necessarily prevents holding one’s own interpretation of it; (I still experience my own meaning of I’ll Be Alright when I listen to it), The XX’s refusal to concede their lyrics’ context shows an impressive dedication to the listening experience of their fans. This is a rich, intimate way of experiencing music, involving the listener viewing a song through the filter of one’s own experience, as if it is written from their perspective.
A less vivid and yet still significant version of the listening process may work when it comes to songs written in the second or third person. Between the release of his mixtape Nostalgia Ultra and his album Channel Orange, the most impressive way in which Frank Ocean matured as a songwriter was in how he was able to write objectively about others, painting vivid pictures of their experiences but yet still allowing his fans to pass judgement. All of the aforementioned mixtape’s songs were first person narratives, but the songs on Ocean’s latter album such as Sweet Life, Super Rich Kids, Pyramids and Monks moved the lyrical focus away from himself. In the same way that readers can choose whether to judge The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield as a conflicted philosopher or a spoilt brat, listeners may decide whether Super Rich Kids’ eponymous protagonists are struggling with the fact that emotional support, not money, brings happiness (‘parents ain’t around enough’, ‘treat us like we can’t erupt’), or if they are just snobbishly ignorant to their blatant luxury and good luck.
This relationship between song and listener is why fans will often defend their favourite music with such vigour. A few weeks ago, I was hanging around with a friend of mine who I wouldn’t usually consider a serious music fan, and viewed an unexpected demonstration of this connection; whilst listening to a majesticcasual remix of Passenger’s Let Her Go, I carelessly but vehemently criticised the original track, as I find it to be winey and irritating. My friend suddenly seemed hurt to the extent of awkwardness, as if it was him I had insulted, not the song. It was not until much later that I realised I had insulted him; he associated that song with intimate emotions and found solace in sharing his feelings with its writer. He was hurt not because we disagreed about the quality of a song, but because I was attacking him at a very vulnerable point. There is a reason that music fans have such a prominent and aggressive presence on the youtube comments sections; it’s only natural to be protective when someone insults something that really means something to you.
I am not arguing that this process is exclusive to music; such intimacy can be experienced with any piece of art with emotional implications, be it film, literature, even video games (I’m referring more to The Last of Us than Fifa here), but I believe that popular music is the perfect outlet for it, due to the actual structure of a song. I am also not arguing that this process is the only way to enjoy or seriously appreciate music; many of my favourite artists such as Wild Beasts and Kendrick Lamar are capable of stoking obsession purely through the genius of their lyrical and musical arrangements. I simply find that the most pure, exciting way of enjoying music possible is through developing a relationship with it. When a song is connected to your memories, emotions or beliefs, that is when it really matters.