The Decemberists and the Tale of the Tale

I’ve talked about music once  before on this blog, but today I’d like to talk about some music in particular. I want to talk about one specific band: why I enjoy them, and the lesson that I’ve learned from their music.

I’m talking about the Decemberists. Have you listened to them? They’re fucking ace.

It’s funny; I got a Decemberists CD from a friend some years ago, back in the ancient days of high schooling. It was Her Majesty the Decemberists, I do believe, and–well… I didn’t like it. That’s right. I thought it was pretty boring. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll recall that I once mentioned that I don’t typically listen to music for the lyrics. I’m usually all about the music itself unless it’s something like hip-hop, for which the focus is much more obviously placed on the lyrical content. For me, lyrics were all about having something slightly coherent for the melody to sit on top of.

Well, I’ve very recently started appreciating lyrics more, and it’s all thanks to the Decemberists. Why? Well, when it does come down to lyrics, the Decemberists write almost exclusively one of my favorite varieties of song. That is, they write story-songs. Their catalog is lousy with the things. There’s a song retelling Shakespeare’s tempest. There are fairy tales about a man who transforms into a fawn by day and falls in love with a forbidden young maiden. There are tunes about all manner of events historical and fictional, realistic and fantastic. And holy shit, do I appreciate that.

Story songs are something that has fallen out of favor in modern music for the most part, and I think that’s a shame. Songs used to be all about storytelling, you know. There are plenty of well known traditional examples to prove this. The Railroad Boy, Whiskey in the Jar, Greensleeves… American folk music is also filled with story-songs. So why have they gone out of fashion?

Well, normally I’d answer that apparently rhetorical question in the next paragraph. But the truth is, I don’t know. Songs about abstract concepts and boring love songs seem to be more popular these days. Even old-school dancing tunes, when they did have lyrics, were usually stories. Nowadays they’re usually about… I don’t know, dancing? They seem to even be about dance songs. You know, that seems pretty meta now that I think about it. Like a movie about the making of the movie itself. Or a TV show in which the main character writes the script for the next episode. Whoa… This is turning into some stoner shit right here.

The thing is, story songs have probably fallen out of favor because people focus less on the lyrics of music than they used to. Even the Beatles, man. The Beatles were an amazing and influential group, but let’s be honest–a lot of their lyrics were complete and utter balls. Mostly vapid love songs. One of the best songs lyrically is Eleanor Rigby, because it tells a tale. And even that is a bit abstract. You get the idea that some of the lyrics are less metaphorical and more, well… malarchy. And the idea that lyrics should get more appreciation makes me rethink my previous feelings about music. Sure, I still do like the sound of music alone. But the lyrics aren’t just there as fluff. They shouldn’t be, I mean. As stupid as it sounds, lyrics should speak to the listener. And they usually don’t. When is the last time you heard a Kesha song (I refuse to write a dollar sign in place of the “s”) and thought to yourself, “Yeah! She’s right! This place is about to blow!” Exactly. What happened to our musical tastes that we accept that kind of shit as lyrics? It’s empty, meaningless… It’s Kesha, God damnit.

The stories that the Decemberists tell aren’t all the sort of realistic tales that I like to write in the form of prose. Some are dark, some are uplifting… but nearly all of them, even the love songs, tell a tale of some kind. There is something about the sweetness of a touching melody that allows even a simple story to move us. The perfect high note can make that pleading cry for love that much more touching. The heart-wrenching dissonance of two distorted guitar tones fighting to overcome each other can help drive the accompanying lyrics into your heart and your mind to stay. They don’t have to be complex lyrics, you see, because they have the music to help them, and music speaks to people in a way that words alone cannot. So why has popular music been largely unable to tell even simple stories in what seems like such a long time? Maybe storytellers are just being driven underground, I don’t know.

I appreciate story songs for another reason. As a would-be writer of music (I dabble), I find them easier to write. Thinking of melodies is hard. But sometimes the melody will just find your song after you’ve got some words for it to cling to. The natural rhythm of words works that way. Whenever I’d think of a melody first and then try to stick some words on it, they were utter shit. They still usually are. All vague ideas and empty “messages.”

The point is, I wish that songwriting would follow the tack of the Decemberists and lean back towards storytelling. It’s not as if the concept is inapplicable in modern music. Nas did it, and that’s why he kicks so much ass, or used to, anyway. Don’t you even dare tell me that Nas didn’t used to kick ass. Shut your mouth.

We all like stories, is what I’m saying. In any case, aren’t you tired of hearing autotuned party-boppers tell you what a club looks like? I sure as hell am. Bring back the stories, man. It’s time for a revival.

Peace, friends.

 

Why All Music that I Don’t Like is No Better than Elevator Music

Today I want to talk about something besides writing. I’ve got a few ideas for writing-related posts on the back-burner, but we’ll take a short break from that after the epic conclusion to my fight-scene trilogy two days ago.

Today, I’d like to talk about music–how it affects people; why it’s so important to me and some of my friends but not to other people; and why it can be so divisive a subject. Music is something that has meant a lot to me… since high school, I guess? It actually started before then. In middle school. (By the way, here’s an interesting tidbit–where I come from, the fact that I just used the words “middle school” would immediately tell you that I am most likely not Catholic, and attended a public school. Catholic private school kids say “grade school.” Now you know.) Anyway, yes. My love of music began in middle school.

I used to play in the school band. Clarinet was my thing, and I was the best player in the class, despite the fact that I never practiced outside of school. I’m not being a braggart. It’s merely the truth. I don’t know if it just clicked for me, or what. But I really enjoyed making music. I always had favorite parts of the songs we were currently learning, and I got the sense that most of the other kids weren’t even listening, just following along, waiting for lunchtime. But I listened to those songs. There were always details that stuck out to me. And me and my friends used to teach each other how to play Iron Man and Smoke on the Water and Crazy Train on our woodwind instruments. In the later years of middle school, the band teacher let three of us form our own band and play at the Christmas concert. I got to play the Star Spangled Banner Jimi Hendrix-style with a wah pedal, and then I and two other kids played some faux-metal nonsense that we had written over the course of a few weeks. I got to see a bunch of grandparents applaud music that they would have spanked their kids for listening to.

When I got to high school, music became an even bigger part of my existence. I wasn’t the type of kid who really connected to lyrics–I didn’t start really listening to lyrics with intent to understand until I got into hip hop a few years later–but I just connected to the sound, and the feel of music. I connected to the particular atmosphere that certain songs cultivated. And in high school, where clique and lifestyle are defined almost entirely by clothing and musical taste, my ideas about music became more and more clear, and more cemented.

I realized that music is not just background. Listening to music is an activity in itself. I once listened to a whole album in one sitting while looking out the window of my college dorm, sitting in the dark and just… listening. Just the sound of the music, and the way it made me feel. The melody and the rhythm. Other times, when I do listen intently to lyrics, I really appreciate when serious effort is put into making them mean something. It’s not a deal-breaker if lyrics are an afterthought, but good lyrics can make a mediocre sounding song interesting.

A brief aside: Some people are under the impression that you must agree with the lyrics of the music you listen to–this is the basis for uninspired Christian rock’s entire existence. But that’s bullshit. I’m not so dull that I need my music to think for me, or agree with what I already think. The lyrics are a snapshot of a moment in that artist’s life. When I listen to Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” I don’t suddenly think that relationships should be based around having someone to clean your house, fix your meals, and then leave. I think, Gee, that must have been a tough time in Neil’s life. I think of all the similar crazy thoughts that have jumped into my head over the years, and how those fleeting emotions are important because we can all connect to them.

Anyway, my innate sense of pacing tells me that this introduction has gone on far too long, so let me get to the point. What makes music important to us? For the vast majority of people, it seems to be the desire to dance. I hate to sound like my high school self, but much of it also seems to stem from the desire to belong–to any group, be it clique, religion, or just the masses of average, unassuming people.

For me, music is important. It speaks to me. And that’s why I have, ever since I discovered music’s power, sought it out. I emphasize this because I am struck by the fact that the majority of people don’t seem to find music. They don’t go out in search of the next little bit of sound that will really move them. They just let the music come to them. And this is whence (third time I’ve used that word on this blog–boy am I proud) much of my hatred of popular music stems. Pop music is just too easy. It’s right there. Yes, everyone’s eyes–ears, rather–are first opened by something they heard on the radio. But then you should go and discover more. It’s out there. There is so much good, underappreciated music out there, in literally every genre.

So why the hell don’t people look for it? When I tell people what kind of music I like, I usually start by saying “I listen to just about everything.” Which is broadly accurate. I like my fair share of metal (screaming and singing alike), bluegrass, folk, indie (which isn’t much of a genre description, but whatever), classic rock, hip hop–you get the idea. It’s a mix of whatever I like. But then I realize that that’s the answer people give when they don’t give a shit about good music. When most people claim that they listen to “everything,” what they really mean is “I listen to the top 40 on the way to work.” See, that’s not everything. It’s not even remotely close. And I don’t want this person to think that I don’t give a shit about music. So I’ll add to my statement. “Well, I listen to a lot of music. You know, metal, rock, some underground-type rap…” Hm, I’ll think, how do I clarify this jumble of words? I know: “I listen to basically anything that isn’t on the radio.”

That usually clears things up. Now they at least know that the music I like they won’t have heard of, so they’ll leave me alone. Time to pop the headphones back on. But recently someone picked that little statement apart. “So,” they said, which much snark and self-satisfaction, “You just don’t listen to it because it’s on the radio?”

“No, no,” I replied, not wanting to look like an obnoxious hipster. I covered my tracks with some lame explanation, but I was left thinking about the remark. And I realized: yes. I do avoid things that are popular. And I recognize that that’s stupid. The fact that something is well-known does not guarantee that it is of poor quality. But I’ve associated pop music with a lack of creativity for so long, that I can’t help but make the distinction. My wiring has officially changed, and my brain now designates just about everything I hear on the radio as sub-par. I know I’m like the kid who eats liver and onions and loves it until dad tells him what it is, but I can’t help it.

Because music is important to me, and it truly irks me that it’s not just as important to other people.