The Music is the Message

My first album was Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. I bought it two years after it blew up, my freshman year of high school in 1997. The album itself means nothing to me. I suppose it was empowering to a lot of people, but I couldn’t have cared less about the trials and tribulations of dating Uncle Joey from “Full House.”

“Head Over Feet” was the reason I bought it—I couldn’t get enough of the song’s happy resignation. It wasn’t the lyrics at all; in the dozens of times I replayed that song each night I never once gave thought to what it was actually about. More immediate to me was its lilting verses and soothing chorus, the mediocrity of Alanis’ voice made perfectly blank by Glen Ballard’s job on the mixing boards. Her voice didn’t seem to communicate anything internal—essentially it was a well-oiled vehicle for the homogenous but undeniably comforting harmonies that make radio rock what it is.

At some point, any sense of authenticity got lost in a barrage of poorly conceived and flawlessly executed hooks. Admittedly, that’s just pop music at its least inspired—but when people still champion real bands for “saying something,” not realizing it’s the hooks that lull them into complacency, what are they really talking about? The implication is that there’s something more being communicated, some intangible fundamental human truth that transcends mere music-making and automatically stamps a singer/songwriter’s work as art.

By now Jagged Little Pill no longer seems relevant, not only because we’ve all aged but because its verse-chorus-verse, its hooks, were always more important than its “content.” They’re old now. I’ve never understood how lyrics could single-handedly overshadow boring music. The value placed on music’s literary aspect seems to ignore the fact that music, as the Bomb Squad put it, is nothing more than organized noise. If music is powerful because it’s immediate, because it’s inherently abstract, then why not focus on the possibilities of sound itself?

Music fans who are far older than me often claim this is why classical is the only “truly” good music, because it rigorously explores the possibilities of tonal relationships and all that institutionalized dreck. Ironically, it was being entrenched in classical music to begin with that made me realize how simple (thus fundamental) it is to play with form. In order to give a sublime performance of Bach or Debussy, you don’t have to be blessed with superhuman skill and you don’t have to be a genius. All it takes is tons of practice and knowledge of what you want to do, countless repetitions of the same physical actions you need in order to inflect a note or shape a phrase. Then you repeat it in front of a crowd. At the end of the day, all you really need to understand about classical music is staring you right in the face.

As it should be with any music. It’s great when a song conjures something beyond itself, reminds you of experiences and affects you like that. But to privilege those phenomena over what you’re actually hearing is to place yourself above any notion of actual objectivity, the mistake that most middle-aged rock critics, and kids stuck in the Sixties, seem to make.

I find hip-hop lyrics compelling for entirely different reasons. With hip-hop, the vocal delivery, the form, is so inextricable from the actual content that you’re forced to listen to the words. This must be why good rappers don’t really have to say much in order to say “something”—whether their message is clouded behind metaphors or squashed by battle rhymes, the way they explore the limits of rhythmic interplay, timbre and inflection using real words somehow validates everything they say. It makes the words seem utterly relevant, no doubt because they are—in terms of music.

Being engaged with form, then, is probably the most important thing one can strive for, as a critic and as a listener. If I want to concern myself with depths of literal meaning, I’ll sooner read a novel than search for the same kind of voice in music, which hits ears first and mind second. Case in point: I bought a hardcore hip-hop record in Paris after listening to it for five minutes. I can’t understand a word of what Fratrie is saying, but his flow tells me all I need to know.

—Staff Writer Ryan J. Kuo can be reached at kuo@fas.harvard.edu.