To All the Songs (and Singers) I’ve Hated Before
By David A. Zimmerman
I figured out a long time ago that there’s some music you’re simply not ready to appreciate the first time you hear it. You may be too young; you may be too naive or inexperienced; you may be too emotionally damaged by something associated with the lyrics to appreciate its unique insight; you may even simply have bad taste in music. But for whatever reason, you weren’t ready at first hearing to “get” the song. Mark Twain once observed that the music of German composer Richard Wagner is “better than it sounds”–a particularly Twainy way of acknowledging that music appreciation, like the appreciation of any art form, is a different animal for the hoi polloi than it is for the artistic class.
I studied music in college, earning a minor degree rather than a major because I refused to practice my instrument and follow the direction of my various conductors. But I did leave there with a sense of how music works, my grass roots notwithstanding. I left most of my music bona fides behind, however, when I graduated, concentrating all my attention going forward instead on popular music–so called because it emerges from the popular class rather than the musical elite. The Beatles, for example, made popular music, but not because their music was poor; it was populist at heart, which meant among other things that “popular” was a more convenient way of categorizing them than, oh, I don’t know, all the “elitist” alternatives.
(Pardon my sarcasm; I’m a populist by nature, at least partly as a preemptive strike to excuse my unwillingness to practice my instrument or follow the direction of my various conductors.)
That being said, I usually didn’t have a problem respecting the music of the elites: Wagner or Debussy or Bach or whoever. What I struggled to connect with were actually some of the songs I heard on the radio or saw on MTV, songs which generated a thought along the lines of, What is this nonsense?
I’ve since come around on a number of songs and artists, to whom I hereby extend my apologies, in relatively chronological order:
Bob Dylan. I get it now. The voice is part of the whole package, a fragile delivery system for overwhelming lyrics and powerful musical experiences. Bob Dylan songs sound weird, like muzak, when sung by beautiful voices; each song demands a weathered, plaintive voice, because Dylan was living and singing through weathered, plaintive times. It’s hard to pick one song to repent of hating, but when I now think of Dylan I think first of “Tangled Up in Blue,” and his performance on the Grammys, with Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, of “Maggie’s Farm” finally made the song make sense to me.
Neil Young. Same thing. I first heard “Old Man” when I was a young boy and thought, Who gave this guy a microphone? Then I heard it as a young man and nearly cried. Then I heard “Heart of Gold” and it changed my religion a little bit. Then I heard Neil Young song after Neil Young song and realized that this was a troubador for the times; this was what conviction sounds like.
Willie Nelson. Voice was, apparently, very important to me when I was a kid. Willie Nelson has this nasally tone that I just couldn’t get behind. Particularly onerous to me was his hit “You Are Always on My Mind”; I hate-hate-hated it. Twenty years later it was my ring-tone of choice for incoming calls from my wife. It’s beautiful, simple, touching, sung by a legend who knows the heart of American music better than maybe anyone.
Chrissie Hynde. The first Pretenders song I remember hearing was “Back on the Chain Gang”; the second was “Brass in Pocket.” I was probably ten, and I was convinced that this lady was weird. She probably is weird, but those songs are brilliant–”Back on the Chain Gang” is wistful and sad and poignant, and “Brass in Pocket” ought to be played for every insecure young woman about to take a risk. Women in rock (and women not in rock) owe a debt to Chrissie Hynde, and I owe her an apology.
Annie Lennox. A next-wave Chrissie Hynde for me, Annie Lennox (of the Eurythmics) lost me with the debut single “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I still haven’t quite come around on that song; it didn’t help her case when Marilyn Manson, whom I still don’t appreciate, adopted it as an anthem. I’ve landed on the admission that it’s better than it sounds. But when I set aside “Sweet Dreams” and revisit her other early entries (such as “Here Comes the Rain Again”) it’s like wiping the slate clean; it’s easy for me to embrace such diverse singles as “Would I Lie to You?” and “Missionary Man,” as well as Lennox’s eclectic solo work. Sorry, Annie; keep doin’ what you’re doin’.
Counting Crows. I actually liked Counting Crows when I heard their first single, “Mr. Jones,” and later their entire debut album, August and Everything After. It was catchy and different, reminiscent of Van Morrison moreso than their contemporaries Kenny G, Ace of Bass and Michael Bolton. But I was sure the Crows would be a flash in the pan. Somehow they’ve been able to pull off a pretty decent career, selling twenty million records and earning critical acclaim (including an Oscar nomination for their song “Accidentally in Love”), and sticking together for more than two decades now.
Justin Timberlake. I guess you’d call him a guilty pleasure. I still don’t go for his boy-band-era music with N-Sync, but when he first hosted Saturday Night Live and sat down at the keyboard to perform “Senorita,” I decided he had grown up. I still struggle to admit being a fan, and I even briefly reconsidered my fondness for his “Senorita” performance the last time I saw it (mostly because by then I’d seen it in reruns about a bazillion times), and I don’t really like his attitude generally. But I’ve begrudgingly acknowledged his talent (as a singer; I’m not there yet for Justin the actor).
American Idol. I started watching this show about six seasons in–I believe during the Season of Sanjaya. You may recall that Sanjaya Malakar made it all the way to the top seven despite not being particularly good. Some attribute his success to a public conspiracy led by Howard Stern to subvert the show by voting for someone who couldn’t sing. All this to say, my first introduction to American Idol was as a joke, a freak show. But I’ve kept watching, and I find myself with a favorite every year (none of whom ultimately win, unfortunately). I’ve bought individual performances by Andrew Garcia (“Sugar We’re Goin’ Down”) and Lilly Scott (“Fixing a Hole”), and I can see myself buying maybe even whole albums by this year’s Casey Abrams and Paul McDonald (sorry guys; I probably just killed your chances). It’s a silly show, but it does what it sets out to do.
I’m sure there are other artists I owe all apologies to, and I could probably come up with an alternate lists of songs (and singers) I no longer respect. Such is the conceit of the armchair music snob. Popular music is (ostensibly) music of, by and for the people. As such it’s as fun to talk about as it is to listen to. But any art ought to experience a similar tension–the striving to excel and expand the boundaries of form, set against the challenge to court and woo and know intimately an audience–and any artist will experience that tension as a risk. Art that is truly art has a reach that exceeds its grasp; but it also stretches its audience while never abandoning it.
When you think of it that way, I suppose grace is an art form in and of itself. Thank God it’s populist at heart.