Materialism and music don’t mix. Right? Unlike the narrative-bound mediums of literature, film and theater, music doesn’t have to tell a story in order to sell. It’s not about tangible things happening to tangible people — sure, I often picture vast “Myst”-like dreamscapes when I listen to evocative post-rock by instrumental bands like Tortoise. And, sure, I’ll have an imagery cocktail party in my head whenever I play Pavement (I triple-dog-dare you to hear “he sold his swollen daughter in a sauna playing contract bridge” without getting some serious mind’s-eye action going).
But, ultimately, music isn’t about things. It’s not about conveying meaning or doling out a take-home-message. It’s not about political expression (although Zack de la Rocha would probably shank me for saying that). It’s about riding that immaterial wave of noise and either feeling it in your gut or not. And while it’s probably true that the best art — regardless of medium — packs a punch because it woos you viscerally rather than intellectually, music is abstract in the sense that its mission statement is not to represent the physical world.
Now, this isn’t to say that reality-rooted content is merely chump change in the spiritual realm of music — listening to a wordsmith like Conor Oberst without attending at all to his vivid imagery would be completely missing the point. But, when push comes to shove, I’m in it for the way the aural textures mesh with my eardrums, not for the amount of lyrical motifs an artist can slyly tuck into one record. Someone could transcribe the entire text of “Ulysses” into a 30-minute concept album — if the singer’s voice sucks, I’m not going to give a shit.
Conversely, if the music is great but the lyrics aren’t stellar, I can usually cope. This is especially apparent in genres like shoegaze, where the hazy vocals melt indecipherably into noise-damaged soundscapes and become just another instrument rather than a vessel for social commentary or poetic value.
Loveless by My Bloody Valentine isn’t a classic because of its literary appeal — the blissfully tragic atmosphere of a song like “To Here Knows When” is severely undercut if you read the lyrics: “Slip your dress over your head / It’s been so long / Move on top / Because that way you touch her too.” Still, while these lines may sound like a bad translation of a Korean soap opera, they don’t change the fact that the song’s runny-mascara acoustics make me want to squirt some.
But this is all basically just preamble for me to come out of the closet — I am a bad, bad man. And as much as I preach music’s immateriality, I, being a devout American, have found ways to let superficiality taint my enjoyment of the medium. And no, it’s not because I watch MTV (because I don’t).
When I listen to Built to Spill on record, I am smitten. There’s something about Doug Martsch’s blue-eyed, pseudo-nasal drawl that pushes me dangerously deep into man-crush territory. Based on their music’s bedroom charm, I’d always pictured the band members to be a bunch of flannel-wearing, baby-faced slackers with ripped jeans and offhand sex appeal — an attractive byproduct of hip mid-’90s apathy.
But when I saw them live, my man-crush went through the shredder. Expecting a bunch of pretty-boy softies, what I got instead was the cast of “The Big Lebowski.” With their back-from-the-dead facial hair and schlubby, plumber-esque get-up, they certainly looked like slackers, but not the kind I had fantasized about. In fact, I can confidently say that Built to Spill is an ugly-looking band. And, as guilty and shallow as I felt being turned off by their Larry the Cable Guy blue-collar-ness, I couldn’t help the fact that the band’s homely exterior made me go a big rubbery one. And, while I was admittedly quite stoned and therefore hyper-prone to fixating on incredibly minute details, I must divulge that Martsch’s possessed-by-the-devil facial tics made me severely uncomfortable. After a while, I fixed my eyes resolutely on the band’s guitars so that I could get my head out of the gutter and simply revel in their jam-band chops like a normally functioning human being.
This may seem minor, but it wasn’t an isolated event. The second time I saw Yeasayer live, I was incredibly impressed, and it took me a second to figure out why they had irritated me so much the first time. Then I realized that the bassist had chopped off his obnoxious-looking braids, and that that had probably made all the difference. And I have trouble turning a blind eye to the fact that Avey Tare from Animal Collective looks a little bit too much like a frat boy to be fronting such an enigmatic band.
I am not pleased with myself. If any art form should be freed from the societal mold of appearance, it’s music. Music has no celebrity-star system. It isn’t even a visual medium. So it seems like, theoretically, it should be exempt from all that red-carpet bullshit. But I just can’t help the fact that, if a musician is unpleasant to look at, I’m going to have an unpleasant time looking at them. Do I feel like an asshole? Yes. Yes, I do. I just hope someone else reads this and empathizes with me so I can stop feeling like such a heathen.