It All Sounds the Same to Me . . .

As an omnivorous musical enthusiast, I listen to a wide array of sounds, some of them popular and melodic, some of them dissonant and obscure. When asked to name my favorite bands or genres, I’ve generally round-shouldered the question by answering “I like anything done well.”

Which is a true statement: I listen to extreme metal, experimental hip hop, cowboy songs, Southern gospel, vintage jazz, indie shoe-gaze, guilty-pleasure pop, ’70s funk and soul, and all sorts of other sounds, and generally enjoy them all in equal measure, depending on my mood at the moment. There are many ways to make a joyful noise, and I don’t discriminate.

Albert Ayler

I’m used to people either giving me the blank stare (or the eye-roll) when I talk about (or when they listen to) my music. I can live with that, since I’m sure I make the same faces when other people press their wildest enthusiasms upon me, and I don’t get or don’t share them. To each their own, with tolerance, and respect, amen.

There are two common phrases, however, that I’d really prefer not to hear from folks when it comes to my listening tastes: “It all sounds the same to me” and “That’s not really music.”

I generally find the latter phrase to be the more offensive of the two, since nine times out of ten, I hear it said about hip hop, rap or other beat-based musical forms that have arisen largely from African, Caribbean and American urban culture. While it’s certainly okay to not like these sounds (and I know a lot of people who don’t), denying their very status as music seems to represent a degree of cultural absolutism that treads precariously close to out-and-out racism. Such a position denies the validity of cultural artifacts embraced and adored by millions and millions of listeners, and that’s just wrong.

Napalm Death

The “it all sounds the same to me” response, however, is more challenging to me, as it is rooted not in the dismissal of any particular musical culture, but rather in an admission by the speaker that they simply don’t understand or appreciate the musical genres in question. At best, this statement forces me to explain, defend or justify the subtleties within said genres. At worst, this statement implies that something’s not quite right with me (or others like me) who find nuance, shadow, texture and finesse in what normal people perceive to be a faceless, monochrome slate.

I most often hear “it all sounds the same to me” about rap and hip hop (which is preferable to “that’s not really music,” at least), jazz and extreme metal. I’ve come to consider that an appreciation of the subtleties within these genres is very much an acquired taste, just as developing an appreciation for, and an ability to tell the differences between, various types of coffees, wines, cigars, olives or caviar requires experience and effort.

The thing is, you really have to want to acquire such experience to get past the difficult and sometimes distasteful introductory experiences. Nobody likes the taste of their first cigarette or beer or cup of coffee or spoonful of fish eggs. Nobody! But societal pressures and values inculcate in us a desire to partake of these substances, so we keep at it, until we begin to appreciate flavors and textures that were first masked by our gag and/or cough reflexes.

Dälek

And then, one day, we’re able to make a smart choice of wine at dinner, or prepare a dish with the right olives, or offer guests the perfect beer for a barbecue. Great success! We have persevered through discomfort to develop important life skills!

Unfortunately, the ability to select the perfect Napalm Death or Dälek or Albert Ayler song at any given moment isn’t culturally imprinted upon us in the same ways, so if we’re repulsed by our first encounters with such artists, we’re not as likely to keep working at them in the hopes of gaining expertise, context or perspective.

But I think it’s worth it to make that effort, as the rewards that I gain from perfect musical moments in those challenging genres are just as rich and meaningful as the rewards I receive from a great glass of wine or a perfect tapenade. Had I given up years ago after gagging at my first canned black olive or my first sip of box wine or my first spin of Napalm Death’s Scum, I’d never have known such delights.

So the next time you find yourself saying or thinking “It all sounds the same to me,” I would recommend you take that as an opportunity for personal growth and exploration, to try to figure out just what it is that people like me see behind the off-putting facades such musical genres may offer.

If you need a guide, I’m a cheap date, as I will work for olives and wine . . .

8 thoughts on “It All Sounds the Same to Me . . .

  1. “I most often hear “it all sounds the same to me” about rap and hip hop (which is preferable to “that’s not really music,” at least), jazz and extreme metal. I’ve come to consider that an appreciation of the subtleties within these genres is very much an acquired taste, just as an appreciation for, and an ability to tell the differences between, various types of coffees, wines, cigars, olives or caviar require experience and effort.”

    …is very right. Great observation, there.

    • A fine observation, indeed.

      The other line you hear often regarding rap and hip hop from folks who grew up on “alternative radio” in the ’90s (and you’ve shared your feelings with the class on this topic before, Mr. Smith) is the classic “I LOVE rap! Eminem and the Beastie Boys are the best!”

      And rant in 3…2…1… 😉

      • Man, it is probably time for a periodic re-rolling out the “Fear of White Radio” rant again, isn’t it???

        Ask and ye shall receive . . . .

        ****************************

        It’s really time that somebody pushed the B.S. button on the Beastie Boys, and on the “Modern Rock” radio stations that play their music.

        I was dial surfing while driving around a couple of days ago and stopped on the local “Modern Rock” station right around the time that they were doing their daily Top Five countdown. Four of the songs were what you’d expect: Disturbed or Staind or bands that sound like Disturbed or Staind. The fifth song, however, was the new single by the Beastie Boys, and (like most of their songs) it was a simplistic, one-note, one-beat, lowest common denominator “old school” rap song, with those terrible, terrible, terrible Beastie voices yelling at each other on top of the rudimentary musical bed.

        I’ve cited Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst as the worst singer in popular music history, but the Beasties are definitely nipping at his heels. Plus there’s three of them, which makes it that much worse. What are the odds of getting three singers with such annoying voices in a single band, and then having that band get popular? I’ll have to check the back of my Lotto ticket to come up with an appropriate figure.

        Now, I could have listened to that “modern rock” station all day, and would I have heard any other old school rap songs, or any other contemporary rap or hip hop music? Maybe another Beastie Boys song or two. And maybe (just maybe) an Eminem number. But nothing else. So why were the Beastie Boys (and maybe, just maybe, Eminem) being played there?

        Because they’re white.

        Outkast or Jay-Z or Ludacris or any of the many wonderful Wu Tang members or the always-potent Public Enemy or Doctor Dre (without Eminem as his Modern Rock radio mouthpiece) or Snoop or any other popular African-American rap/hip-hop artist could put out or cover that exact same Beastie Boys song, and it would not get played on Modern Rock Radio.

        Of course, none of those artists would put out that exact same Beastie Boys song, because they’re all operating at a production, composing and performing level far, far above where the Beasties operate, not relying on the cliche of “old school beats” to justify (and hide) their rudimentary skills. The music they make is too rich, too varied and too technically sophisticated for the Beasties.

        So does that mean that Modern Rock Radio is somewhat racially biased in its programming? I think it is. Which probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

        “But,” I hear you say, rising to corporate rock radio’s defense, “Modern Rock radio plays lots of Lenny Kravitz! How can they be racist?”

        They play Lenny Kravitz because Lenny offers what their demographically average, 20-something, white rock radio listener would consider to be “white music,” exploiting the Jimi Hendrix/Thin Lizzy loophole to commercial rock radio acceptability.

        The classic Public Enemy song “Fear of A Black Planet” had a little vocal riff in the middle that boiled racial anxiety down to a simple expression of math and genetics:

        “Black man, black woman: black baby.
        White man, white woman: white baby.
        White man, black woman: black baby.
        Black man, white woman: black baby.”

        I think Modern Rock radio follows a similar model:

        “White artist, white music: white radio.
        Black artist, white music: white radio.
        White artist, black music: white radio.
        Black artist, black music: black radio.”

        So if you’re an African-American artist making music that the demographically average, white rock radio listener (or programming director) would consider to be “black music,” then there’s evidently no place for you in “white” radio formats like Modern Rock, and apparently you can only appear on pop, R&B, rap or “urban” demographic radio stations. Which is just plain wrong.

        Of course, I know there’s not really any such thing as “white music” and “black music,” so I’m using shorthand there, but I hope you get the gist of the point I’m trying to make: that there’s clearly a double standard being applied to programming decisions being made on modern rock radio today, and there has been for many years.

        And the terrible, substandard Beastie Boys are the living, breathing embodiment of its worst practices. If they’re all you know about contemporary rap, then you’re doing yourself an amazing disservice as far as exposure to quality music goes. As are the radio stations who serve them to you aside your daily doses of Staind and Disturbed.

        So I suggest you call your local Modern Rock Radio station the next time you hear them play the Beastie Boys and request “Fear of A Black Planet” by Public Enemy . . . then make them explain to you why they can’t or won’t play that song.

        It should be an interesting rationalization, I would think.

  2. Music like art is subjective to me.

    I am no where near any type of expert in either of these topics, but I come at it from the standpoint that if if it enters my ears and the sight comes in through my eyes and I like it, then…I like it. I don’t know any technical standpoints on music, I just know what sounds good to me!

    A lot of times it happens to be a group or singer that others find abhorrent or just not good, but to me it just sounds good. I enjoy being ignorant to what is and is not good in the music world.

  3. Pingback: Nippertown!

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