The Soundtrack Isn't The Screenplay: Why There's No Such Thing as Bad Music
I do not charge for subscriptions any longer, and my writing is free to all, but if you are interested in supporting me and my work, I would very much welcome the one-time or occasional cup of coffee. You can buy me one here. Thank you!
My new website for my writing and coaching business can be found here.
Jason Isbell is in good company. He is only repeating something Plato argued some 2500 years ago, when the Greek philosopher fretted that certain music had the power to short-circuit the capacity of the young to reason. It would not be unfair to point out that since the advent of recording technology, prigs and puritans and dictators have banned or burned records they found offensive and dangerous, and that everyone from Adolf Hitler to Tipper Gore would nod along with Jason in enthusiastic agreement. Some of you are nodding as well.
Others of you are wondering who this Mr. Isbell is. An Alabama native, Jason has become one of the most celebrated of contemporary Americana artists, a broad genre that operates on the familiar edge of rock and country. Along with his equally accomplished wife, the singer Amanda Shires, Isbell is also an outspoken progressive. He has waded into several of the internecine battles that have roiled the country music industry in recent years, establishing himself as one of the most reliably left-wing of American popular musicians. His Twitter feuds with more conservative singers like Morgan Wallen and Jason Aldean have caused great consternation and drama in Nashville. If you need more details, Google will provide, but the executive summary is that country music is in the middle of what the left calls a “Long Overdue Reckoning” and what the right christens a “Woke Witch Hunt.”
And hey. It’s the fall of 2022. You don’t need to know who Isbell and Wallen are, or to care two figs for their music, to grasp the gist of the quarrel. They’re the same dang arguments we’re having everywhere else. The monkeys have different names, but it’s always the same circus these days.
The quote from Isbell that opens this letter came in a discussion about pop country music, particularly the subgenre that focuses heavily on flags, small towns, pickup trucks, nostalgia and simple patriotism. Isbell argues that that kind of pop country music reinforces white supremacy, and that it functions as the sonic equivalent of a Confederate statue – glossing over a lie, covering up the ancient atrocity that is endemic racism. Jason has many who agree with him, and plenty who don’t.
As for me, I cannot play an instrument or read a single note. As a boy, I was so awful at violin I was encouraged to switch to clarinet. When I proved hopeless at woodwinds, my elementary school music teacher (there were such things as elementary school music teachers, once) moved me to drums. When it was discovered that the rhythm in my head bore no resemblance to the time I was required to beat, Mr. Purdy gave up, and suggested drama. I was a mediocre presence on the stage, but mediocre is an improvement on hopelessly wretched, which is what I was in any band.
I love music, though, with all my heart. I am playing it now, as I type; Spotify tells me I have music on about six hours a day, and I listen to absolute scads of it. I use it to calm myself, to challenge myself, to distract myself, to center myself. I use music toI feel an ordinary human emotion like grief; I use it to power through a workout at the gym. I use it to connect with my daughter as she bravely makes her way through the dark wood of eighth grade. I use it to connect with my son as I drive him to school.
I think of what Jason, or Plato, would say of my son’s favorite music this fall. David likes hip-hop and has become fascinated with the achingly short life and career of the Miami rapper XXXTentacion. X, as he is commonly known, was shot dead when he was only 20. He left behind a child, allegations of vile abuse, and a handful of songs that captivate my ten-year-old David. My son is especially fond of this one:
The lyrics are obscene. Gloriously so. Here’s what my son sings along to in the car:
Look at me, yeah, fuck on me
Look at me, fuck on me, yeah
Look at me, fuck on me
I took a white bitch to Starbucks
That little bitch got her throat fucked
I like to rock out, I'm misfit
My emo bitch like her wrist slit
It’s not Dylan. It’s not even Burt Bacharach. It is what the boy loves, nonetheless.
David already knows that there is a time and a place to rap along to “Look at Me.” Dad’s Hyundai yes; Mama’s Infiniti, no. We’re big in our family on “time, place, and manner” rules – all things are permissible, but not all things are permissible on every occasion and in front of every loved one! One poops alone, one is generally naked only with one’s same sex in the locker room, and one uses different language with one’s friends on the basketball court than one does at the dinner table. That’s not inculcating hypocrisy, it’s teaching civility – which at its core, is about being able to move effortlessly between public and private spheres, adjusting one’s tone and behavior to the needs of the occasion.
As I said, “Look at Me” is an “in the car with Daddy” song. It is not a “sing aloud to mama or your teacher” song. It is also, to some of my readers, the veritable apotheosis of bad music. The lyrics are violent, misogynistic, and bursting with the sort of toxic masculinity that led to the rapper’s own untimely but hardly unpredictable demise. Why would any good father let his son sing along to this? Why coarsen your sweet little boy?
Because it doesn’t coarsen. Music doesn’t work the way Plato and Isbell and Tipper Gore claim. When I was David’s age, I listened to mama’s folk and my papa’s classical, but I also listened to AC/DC and KISS and the Sex Pistols. (The very name of the last of these made them irresistible.) I sang along when Bon Scott wailed about being on the highway to hell (just months before he too died young, choking on his own vomit). It is true that I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but I am quite confident they would have come in their same battalions even if I had never listened to popular music. Many of my friends who grew up on that same rowdy, raunchy, exuberantly vulgar rock as I did have become exemplars of kindness and stability.
David likes “Look at Me” because he connects with the plea in the title and the chorus. It is, in the end, like a great deal of popular music, a plea for recognition. A young man filled with rage and talent, longing and hurt is always compelling, be his name Hank Williams or Mick Jagger or XXXTentacion. If your first instinct is to say that these are hardly in the same category, then you’ve missed the point – the last of these lads may deploy a more graphic demotic, but the excited reaction in the listener is always the same. You hear the emotion, and something echoes within you, and you bounce out into your day with a little more intensity, a little more hope. David calls “Look at Me” his “hype song” because it makes him feel he can leap out of the car and be the leader of his fifth-grade class.
The reference to throat-fucking is entirely beside the point.
In a matter of weeks, we’ll start singing Christmas carols again. I love Christmas carols very much, and though I have a degree in Christian history, I do not believe in God anymore. Stiil, like David in the car, I sing words I do not believe, and oh, the things they make me feel!
My favorite English language carol is “Joy to the World,” and as much as I love singing the Handel tune, in my agnostic mind I do not believe for one minute that “He rules the world with truth and grace.” When I sing it, I mean every word; I am swept along for a moment or two on a tide of what is, for me, a pretty myth. I am, for a moment, a believer – but that’s entirely fictive. When the carol ends, I am no closer to accepting Christ as Lord and Savior than I was before it began.
In his famous hit “Walking in Memphis,” Marc Cohn sings,
Now, Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said, "Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said, "Ma'am, I am tonight!"
Cohn is Jewish. Music let him step into another world and give an honest answer to Muriel’s query. Music makes David wriggle with potential, overcome by a feeling that is as intense, as it is transient, as it is non-defining of who or what he is or will become.
I’ve always loved the musical Cabaret. One of the most compulsively memorable of its songs is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” It’s performed in the film by a good-looking young Nazi, and as he sings, first a cappella and then with a band, it gradually builds until it drives an entire restaurant into patriotic fervor. It’s a cleverly written tune, a play on old German folk melodies, with deliberately insipid lyrics. (John Kander, the composer is still alive at 95 – and he is Jewish.). We are meant to sing along, and I always do. On a superficial level, the seductive melody proves Isbell’s point: music can be bad and dangerous. But on a deeper level, it confounds that argument: we sing along lustily with the soundtrack, but we are decidedly not seduced. We are mocking the Nazis, not tempted to join them. Music has the power to make us feel things in a moment, but it doesn’t transform our nature, any more than singing Silent Night turns Jewish kids into Christians.
It is very good to feel strong emotions when one listens to music. It is good to be provoked and challenged, comforted and convicted. It is good to blast ‘80s hair metal when one needs to get through a gym workout at 5:15AM. It is good to remember that music is the best and most reliable of companions. It is the soundtrack, though, and not the screenplay. We do well to remember that, and to let other people – even our children – listen to what delights them. Even when, perhaps especially when, it bewilders and confounds us.