I spent this past New Year’s Eve in Stockbridge, Georgia, visiting my friend, cousin, and college roommate, Travis.* We watched the New Year’s Eve program with Dick Clark and Ryan Secrest, which gets more depressing every year as Dick Clark continues to deteriorate. After the ball dropped, they switched to a live musical performance by something called Far East Movement. They performed a song called “Like a G6,” and, in the hook they repeat the mantra “Now I’m feeling so fly like a G6, like a G6, like a G6.” I didn’t really understand why you would want to feel like one of the six most powerful members of the European Union. I mean, I guess that would be cool, but it didn’t really seem to fit the context. I figured I was missing something, and I found out that a G-6 is some sort of private plane. It stands for Gulf…something.

“Is Spain part of the G-6?” “Not sure, dude.”

*I have to share one story from my visit with Travis. On New Year’s Day, we all woke up bright and early about noon, and we decided to eat at Cracker Barrel. I was due to fly out the next day, and I wanted to take Travis’ family out to lunch before I headed home. We tried the Cracker Barrel in Stockbridge, but it had a wait of about an hour, so that wasn’t going to work. Travis’ wife, Annie, then suggested, “well, we can go tomorrow.”

I responded, “ I can’t go tomorrow, I’ll have to catch my flight.”

Annie: “You’re flying back today?”

Me: “No, I’m flying back tomorrow.”

Annie (now laughing): “No, I meant we can go to the Cracker Barrel in Morrow, Georgia.”

Me: “Oh! Of course! We aren’t going tomorrow, we’re going to Morrow. If that doesn’t work, do they have a Cracker Barrel in Gether or Night?”

This is the kind of thing that happens to me lately when I try to listen to popular music.* It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if I had known what a G-6 was, why would I want to feel like one? What does that even mean? I mean, I understand the idea is that you are feeling like a wealthy playa or something flying on his private jet drinking Cristal, but…I don’t care about any of that. In fact, I have to think long and hard about something I care less about. Maybe Jersey Shore.

*Obviously, this is a terribly imprecise term. But I lack a better one.

So, that’s the thing. Most popular music is not written for or marketed to me. Which is fine. But that means that when I do listen to it, I generally just feel disoriented and confused.

An Exciting Offer for the Business Owner

So, if I’m not interested in a G-6 or California gurls, what do I look for in music? One thing is that I like to feel as though a human being is trying to share something with or communicate something to the human being that is listening to the music. It could be telling a meaningful story, sharing something with emotional impact, or thoughtfully addressing a topic. It should feel like the artist put, if not his heart and soul, then at least a little thought into it.

Is this subjective? Sure, to an extent. But I think most of us can tell the difference between something sincere and something contrived.

At my work, we get a lot of calls from solicitors (salespeople, not British attorneys). I’m sure it’s the same for you. I’ve been bemused lately by some calls we’ve received with pre-recorded sales pitches. “This is a call with an exciting offer for the business owner! Please hold to learn how to take advantage of this exciting offer!” Sure thing! Click. On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to hang up without worrying about being rude to the caller (I know. I’m a sucker). On the other hand, does this work? Does anyone actually call back or stay on the line for those things?

“Excuse me, sir. Could I interest you in the purchase of a G-6?”

For me, listening to top-40 music feels a lot like getting a call from one of those pre-recorded telemarketers. I keep thinking to myself, “is there even a human being on the other side of this thing?” Did a person compose that chord structure and write those lyrics, or were they the product of an algorithm? Is there any emotion or thought behind what I’m hearing?

Do you think what I’m askin’s too much? I just want something to hold on to and a little of that human touch.

Pique My Curiosity

My other complaint about popular music is that, when it’s not utterly confusing, I find it to be utterly boring.

Let’s try this exercise. You and me. We’ll listen to the local top-40 station together, and, whenever we hear a song that’s new to one or the other of us, after we hear the first line of a couplet, we’ll try to guess what the rhyming word is to complete the couplet. So, if the couplet start’s “I’m so much in love,” and I guess “above” for the rhyming word, that’s a point for me.

Tell you what, just for yucks, let’s make it a drinking game. So, if you guess the right word, you take a drink. Don’t tell Mrs. Water. Here we go! And…we’ve been playing for twenty minutes, and…I’m dead from alcohol poisoning.

Here lies Water. Loving Husband. Killed by a James Blunt Song.

Look, I’m not asking for Bob Dylan’s songwriting in everything I listen to. Far from it. But I need something unexpected or interesting, either in the music or the lyrics or somewhere.

One of the great pleasures in life is to find something truly surprising. One of the minor cruelties in life is that it becomes harder to be surprised as you get older. That sense of surprise, of wonder, is, as much as anything, what I look for in music, or a film or book or whatever bit of “culture” you want to suggest. It’s not my primary sense of joy in life – as C.S. Lewis observed, seeking joy solely from something that transitory is a fool’s errand – but I like it.

I don’t like the clichéd lyrics about whatever gross parody passes as love these days, or whatever clumsy attempts at innuendo or downright salaciousness are considered edgy, or whatever tired self-aggrandizing nonsense seems to characterize so much of popular music today. Does that make me old or crotchety or out-of-touch? Probably. Does that bother me? Not really.

Some questions:

Aren’t people who claim not to like popular music just pretentious hipsters trying to look cool?

As surely as some bands sell out, I’m sure some people listen to avant garde or obscure music just to be an insider or to impress their peer group. People have a nasty tendency to form cliques and find assorted ways to exclude others. But, just as surely, a lot of people listen to music from off the beaten path because they enjoy it.

Personally, I don’t meet a lot of people who are impressed that I listen to Arcade Fire or Spoon or whomever. My clientele and most of my friends could really care less. Which is fine; they don’t need to.

Besides, I can’t grow a beard worth a darn.

“My beard flies on its own G-6”
Isn’t there just as much drivel made by indie rock bands as is made by popular music artists?

Yes. Yes. A hundred times yes. Look, just because you have eleven members in your band and one of them plays the hurdy gurdy and you have a degree in Russian literature, it doesn’t mean you will write interesting, engaging music or that you can even carry a tune. Likewise, just because you write popular music doesn’t mean that your music is insubstantial garbage. Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is nothing if not popular music, but it’s also one of the best songs of the last five years. Good music is all around. You just have to look for it.

For me, it’s a percentages game. I tend to like a higher percentage of the indie rock* music that I listen to versus other genres. I’m a nerdy white dude, what do you want? Since my time is limited, that’s where I choose to mine for gold. Do I miss out on some equally shiny nuggets elsewhere? No doubt. But this seems to give me the best return on my investment. Believe me, though, I still wade through a lot of slag to find the good stuff.

*Again, this is a terribly imprecise term. Sue me. I still think you’re a pretentious hipster.

Fine. I’ll start working on my beard.