Music for Thought: Till Death Do Us Part
Discovering and devouring new music, seeking new thrills from the journey, is a limitless pursuit, almost Sisyphean in a way, argues Akhil Sood. It’s as rewarding as it is futile and meaningless. It’s also joyful.
Sometimes, when I’m just minding my own business, being a righteous, noble, kind, obedient, humble, god-fearing citizen, an itch will find its way to that unreachable spot in the middle of my back. A rogue mosquito may be the culprit, or it could just be for no reason at all. Then I squirm, arch my back, crane my neck, do other awkward things, all in a display of what grace isn’t. I try to find different approaches to pinpoint that exact spot — I know it’s there but I can’t seem to reach it. The brain takes a while to determine the correct angle with which to attack. I stretch my arms too much and a cramping, spasming pain makes a welcome appearance. Too little and the sensation intensifies. Yet I persist, partly because it’s unendurable, but mostly because the pay-off will be worth it. The itching subsides bit by bit, the tingles disseminating strategically through the whole body. It’s a victorious feeling.
It can at times be instant and in real-time — like when I first heard Moonlight Sonata — but just as often, I’ll hear some music that doesn’t quite register. Where it sort of passes by me, but I realise that ‘something’ is there, if only I can reach the spot. It’ll take a while to get there; lots of effort that can just as well be spent exploiting Facebook’s infinite scroll or watching TV reruns. Or just reliving memories via music out of which all joy has been sucked. No one likes spasming muscles. But invest enough into that pursuit, and soon enough you get the post-scratch reward.
Music, in the effect it has on listeners, works in a couple of ways. There’s the obvious emotional reaction, the appreciation for it. It’s tingly. It’s visceral, ominous, merciful, angry, soft, and feathery. It’s elastic and comical. It washes over you. It’s also pretty much indescribable. You feel the way you do, and transposing the emotion into words is futile.
Outside of that lie all the tropes, flourishes, decorations, luxuries, the frippery extravagance, the flounce, the trappings. That’s sort of where the chase takes over. So it’s a constant search to grab hold of that initial feeling – chasing the immaculate joy of discovery and complete unconditional submission to the aesthetics of the craft, and hurtling downhill for it.
The whole thing lends itself perfectly to the spirit of fetishising, where you’re sort of fumbling around in the dark to recreate an elusive concept. A degree of obsession takes hold, and the thrill of discovery — unearthing something, again, that’ll change you the same way that maybe the snoozefest I like to now call Pink Floyd first did — starts to take centrestage.
As a kid, I used to diligently read the liner notes and squint at the artwork to find some greater meaning each time I bought a cassette. (I still do on occasion, but the experience is now stained [or enhanced] by the very modern concept of self-aware post-irony.) The mythologising (self-or otherwise) was tied into the enjoyment quotient. To the extent that I knew names of the session musicians and the recording engineers on albums I liked. And I wasn’t alone or particularly special for doing this — everyone did. It’s this endless vulnerability, where you open yourself up to anything that might lead to something new. You get on to one of those stupid upside-down rollercoasters knowing fully well that it’ll scare the shit out of you and possibly scar you for life, in the hope of discovering some new sense of joy. Raja mirchi is, what, only the chilliest chili in the world? Yet still we eat it. Without getting too much up our own backsides about it, the tales of Icarus or Prometheus come to mind.
It’s the endless greed, the fetish of it all. The search for authenticity and inclusion. It’s why people who insist on buying only CDs or LPs or tapes look down upon people who buy music digitally. It’s why people who buy music digitally but pay more for the WAV or FLAC files look down upon people who buy the cheaper-priced MP3s. It’s why people who buy MP3s look down upon people who use Torrent websites and download music illegally, often getting a low-fidelity output. It’s why people who steal lo-fi MP3s look down at people who stream lo-fi music online. It’s why people who stream music online look down upon people who insist on buying only CDs or LPs or tapes. And they, in turn, feel even more smug. And are then persecuted further, further exaggerating their smugness, which further exaggerates the persecution. It’s a Till Death Do Us Part arrangement, with all parties complicit.
It could be a stray video playing on VH1 in the background; they’re the only ones who play music on television now so the options are a little restricted but hey. It’s happened to me enough times where I’ll hear something on TV in the other room and I’ll immediately stop what I’m doing to jot down the name of the song playing so that I can search for it later. Sometimes I’ll hear something in a restaurant or pub, floating around slightly above the chatter of the patrons, and it’ll drive me absolutely batshit if I’m unable to figure out what song it is. For that purpose, you have apps — the evergreen Shazam and the more recently popular SoundHoud — which, when they’re exposed to the song for a few seconds, will obediently give you name, age, written by, born on, produced by, plagiarised from, and any other details you may require from a song. They’ll now hand over a real-time lyrics update as well if you’re in the mood for an impromptu karaoke session.
All these things exist for the primary purpose of feeding the frenzy of discovery and the single-minded obsession that tends to take shape in some people. We all have that friend or acquaintance whose music recommendations we’ll trust implicitly. I’d accidentally found this Blogspot blog in the mid-to-late 2000s that had a (pirated and very much illegal) selection of really interesting experimental (at the time) instrumental guitar music from parts of Canada and Europe. I’d always check the site each time I wanted to listen to something new and weird. Their output became a bit scattered by around 2009 or so because they were probably looking for ways around the evils of anti-piracy laws, but they’d at least provide me with names and titles I could search for elsewhere. It was bookmarked, and then my laptop crashed, and that blog link that I’d exploited to frightening degrees was then forever lost in the ether.
Last.fm played that role for a whole bunch of people, who could get reccos based on stuff they already liked. Apple does something similar today with its new Apple Music, although I haven’t yet tested it out so I can’t vouch for its success rate. There was also Grooveshark which wasn’t quite as effective but it worked just fine before it was bullied and browbeaten to death by the big bad record labels. I also had this shop in Palika Bazaar, Rhythm-something or Music-something (which is now resting in peace), that had MP3 CDs. Each CD would have some 20-30 albums on it, all by different artists, usually depending on the whims of the guy spending so much time downloading all that music on a dial-up (or early broadband) connection and selling them to kids at a fairly affordable price. I’d always pick a CD which had, like, three or four albums that I wanted, diving headfirst into the remaining 27 with no idea what to expect, and getting spectacularly blown to bits a bunch of times. Like the time I was looking for the billions of unreleased/bootleg versions of Nirvana songs. I found a CD which had some of those, along with a couple of albums by Rage against the Machine. The CD also happened to have an album called ‘Ænima’ by Tool, whom I’d never heard of before. They had these flowing, indulgent songs that went on forever — one of them, ‘Pushit’, was 10 minutes long. This was a whole new world for a 15-year-old me, trained to believe that a song cannot ever exceed the golden mark of four-and-a-half minutes, that anything longer falls into that rubbish Raag-Bhairav-Jugalbandi-Hindustani-thaalam that the older people in my house would probably listen to.
The element of surprise, the possibility of a happy accident, kept me going each time. It’s also why people enable the Autoplay function on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, in the hope that something might float in a sea of “cats mucking about” trash, or why they persist with the ridiculous Autoplay and playlist features on YouTube. Even during the act of buying physical music, there’ve been countless CDs I’ve picked up for the most absurd reasons, from a parental advisory sticker to an interesting looking cover, only to abandon the experiment upon realising the error of my ways. Like the time I picked up a Blue Oyster Cult CD because I either a) mistook the band for someone else, or b) thought the name sounded really cool (I can’t remember which), only to ditch any attempts at getting through the album because it just didn’t connect. Sometimes, I just see a CD in a corner that I feel bad for and pick it up. Money well spent or not, it’s all part of the process — an endless appetite to acquire more, in the faint hope that some of the shit chucked at the wall might stick, with no hint of diminishing returns. Ever.
That said, things can always go downhill really quickly, where the chase takes precedence over the actual destination (if I may call it that): gobbling up the indescribable, impossible emotions that the music will evoke. The line is a fine one, but it goes some way in explaining why “collector” types are given such a bad rap. I’m not one (god no), but then somehow, in my house somewhere is a CD of a very rare Radiohead EP called ‘Com Lag’ that was some kind of a Japan special which I found floating in a pile of cast-offs at a shop once. I may not know where it is now — the fact that so many laptops these days don’t even have CD drives should give you an idea of how pointless the CD detour was — but I still romanticise the financial transaction that got me the thing in the first place often. Radiohead was just this really cool, arty, hip band that white (and ahead-of-the-curve brown) people on the internet of the late ’90s and early 2000s used to talk about; I heard ‘OK Computer’ just so I could feel part of that very precious, very full-of-itself community; just so I could tell people: “Haan, haan, suna hai maine bhi Radiohead; khaas nahi hai.” Soon enough though, I was a convert, and thus began an obsession with scrounging back-alleys at music stores for some unheard-of release. And Com Lag was it. Am I an old fart then — because this is what old farts do. They rhapsodise about their music collection in a cleverly designed blitz of faux-humility and obvious superiority.
The process of listening to music — one that goes beyond just the act of hitting play — has forever been so intrinsically tangled up with the mania, the story, the ‘narrative’ around it. The absolute obsession. Is the live experience more meaningful? Are LPs and record players more authentic? Must one pay for music? How much do CDs suck? FLAC or MP3? Will staring at photos on a computer be less fulfilling than holding the booklet in my hand and decoding the lyrics? These are all factors that contribute. The frills, nauseatingly romanticised as they are, play a role.
Of course you also have the other kind of consumer: the average, everyday listener — the Neha Jain and the Ankit Kumar — who’ll hear music like regular people are supposed to. They buy music once in a never-moon; they hear embedded links on social media; a lot of the music they consume is incidental: like at a club or a restaurant, or on TV, or in a friend’s car, as opposed to sought out. They hum melodies without knowing where they’re from, and they have a good enough time with it. This isn’t to dismiss their experience — if anything, it’s more innocent and untainted.
But we’re focussing our attention on the obsessive, self-aggrandising types: the ones who’ll get into things like musical ethnography when something moves them enough. The ones who hear albums instead of songs or playlists, discographies instead of albums, movements instead of discographies.
All of this, a glorified exercise in making material sense of an abstract notion, basically comes down to that same scratch in the middle of the back that’s so annoying to reach. The thrill of the climax is what keeps people going. It’s Sisyphean in a way, except that the boulder is rolling downhill and you’re running after a feeling at the risk of falling flat on your face, trying to grab hold of it again — somehow. Like: in a conversation about a writer called PG Wodehouse, whom I’ve never read (for shame), my co-conversationalist shot me a gloomy look, announcing his envy that I could still experience the joy of reading him for The First Time Ever(!). It’s such an old trope, of course, but that first jolt — the feeling of completion — when a song or a composition or an album just starts to make sense is such a strange sensation.
The old fartness — the preening, the condescending jibes, the assumed sense of authority — is off-putting and unnecessary without doubt, but it’s also an understandable (if not justified) mis-reaction. A kid who’s super hungry is usually unable to articulate the feeling into words, so she snaps, throws a fit, cries, and lashes out. This, the ineffable itch, is the adult version of that. Once the desires are sated and the satisfaction is in effect, it’s a sort of uneasy period of calm gestation. The completion lasts for a brief while, before the hunger kicks in again. And repeat. And repeat again.