Intimate Harmonies

“So… what kind of music do you listen to?”

I’ve had this conversation in several different incarnations in the last month. It feels like such an intimate question. We make snap judgments about people based off of what kinds of music they like. We judge compatibilities and make assumptions. To ask someone what kind of music they like is akin to asking a lover what they like in bed, no? In both instances, we’re asking what makes the other move.

I wrote this piece about a month ago. At the time, it was among the most fun and exhilaration I had had writing in quite awhile. Then I hit “send”. Suddenly, I felt exposed. Unlike they usual “will they like my post” neurosis that usually accompanies sharing my thoughts, this was a deeper sense of paranoia. It was a fear of being rejected on account of my musical preferences, a rejection that I honestly feel like I can’t fully bear. Music is that deeply entrenched in my personality and psyche that I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing a dislike for an artist or a genre from a personal dislike.

And yet, while I dread sharing my musical tastes with others, I also deeply long to share the songs that impact with me with others. I both want them to know what moves me and hope that they can in turn be moved, even if not to the same extent. When I am driving in my car and blasting one of my poorly thought out mixed cd’s, I so desire that you be in the car with me AND that you’re willing to listen to me rant about why a particular tune resonates with me and on what level. I’m a bit of a narcissist in that way. Forgive me if you are ever in my passenger seat and I take you as my musical hostage. I mean you know harm.

“Can I make a request? Can you PLEASE change this CD?”

This “request” came from a customer at work. Fortunately, I suppose, I have no say on what is played through the PA system in the store and told him as much. As he checked out he bemoaned how the melodies of the female artist grated on him. He then went on, “But I’m a sixty year old man. I’m sure some one thinks this is the best thing in the world. I remember my dad hating everything that I listened to as a kid”. That little bit of enlightenment was refreshing. Our tastes have so much to do with age, gender, race, class, exposure, expressions of freedom from or expressions of solidarity with authority figures. It’s so deeply personal.

And yet it’s so deeply communal. We couldn’t have “pop” music if there wasn’t a aural sensibility that appealed to a mass audience. That sensibility shifts with time from swing bands, to rock guitars, to synthesizers, to heavy bass, to auto tuned voices, certain elements, whether we like them or not, become a part of the communal consciousness. They create a kind of instant intimacy because “Hey, that’s our jam!”

Religion has thrived off of this communal aural consciousness. The act of singing, chanting, shouting, clapping (ha!) together with a like minded group creates an other-worldly bond in a way that doctrine and ritual simply can not. Of course, the devil lives in the choir loft. How many of our theological divisions are really just differences in preference of music style? More than we’d care to admit, I’d wager.

A very personal thing for me about music: I’m a black guy who functions to a relatively high degree in white spaces. That is until you grab my iPod (symbolically… I’m a couple of years removed from my last iPod). Most of my music is “black” music. I love hip hop. I love jazz.  The things I listen to most frequently are rooted in African American tradition and artistry. In fact music, more than just about anything else, connects me to my racial identity. I also listen to some “white” music. I love Baroque music. I love rock. I like some folk, singer/songwriter stuff. I don’t love country. I feel equally self conscious when I have “black” music blaring out my window in white spaces as I do having “white” music blasting in black spaces. I’m exposed as a black man who is deeply proud of his people’s musical heritage who was raised in very white spaces and grew an appreciation for that which was not his own.

In my naivete/arrogance, I often think that the way that I operate is the way that things should be, that people should be able to move seamlessly between genres of music that they like and appreciation with out question. Yes, we should have conversations about cultural appropriation when white people rap. And maybe we should have follow up conversations about how a poor white person’s cultural experience may be closer to that of an African American than that of a middle class white person. We can have all of those conversations. And we can throw in the many appropriations of Latino music and culture along the way. Such great conversations to be had…

… but after that conversation is over, tell me what Pandora station you’re listening to. Burn me a CD… or am I the only one who still does that? Tell me what moves you and why and I’ll try really hard not to judge if you’ll extend me the same privilege. And maybe we’ll all learn to sing each other’s songs, and dance to each other’s rhythms, even if clumsily at first. Maybe we’ll build bridges between each other’s cultures and heritages ad if not that, maybe at least each other’s lives. Maybe we’ll discover something new that we love. Maybe we’ll discover something we hate that we’re willing to tolerate on occasion for the sake of someone that we love.

Did you see the 2009 film version of the Alamo? Few people did. In the film, every night before the Mexican army attack the Alamo, they play drums. This is the best scene from the film:

It’s amazing what a little harmony can do. It held off an attack for a night. How many more feuds and conflicts could be solved?

I end with this: I haven’t done an exact count, but the artists who are most featured in my musical library are Johann Sebastian Bach, John Coltrane Talib Kweli, Antonio Vivaldi, Miles Davis, The Roots, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Jackson, Ingrid Michaelson, Lauryn Hill, and The David Crowder Band. Have fun figuring me out.

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