Tag Archives: music

I Finally Get Radiohead

The new Lego movie has a funny moment (I should say, it has dozens if not hundreds of laugh-out-loud funny moments — seriously, if your kids want to go see it, do yourself a favor and take them — but this one in particular has lodged in my grey matter) at the end of the second act. It’s your classic all-is-lost moment, with the heroes (no spoilers) THROWN into a situation that seems ultimately beyond recovery. BOXed in. No way out.

Because it’s the Lego franchise, and the Lego franchise is nothing if not ridiculous and snarky and meta at every possible turn, with fourth-wall breaks and winks-and-nods to the audience on every page, the characters break into song at their plight. They negate the ubiquitous “Everything is Awesome” theme and lament that “Everything’s Not Awesome.” Of course, this is the turning point — “not awesome” is okay, they realize, everything can’t be awesome all the time, etc, etc. But during the song, before that turn, one of the characters claims that “I finally get Radiohead.” My wife, hearing that, turned to me with a chortle: I was, once upon a time, quite a big fan of Radiohead. (Back in the days of mixtapes and mix CDs, I made one for my wife on which half of the tracks were by Radiohead. I don’t remember her exact response — it was over a decade [help!] ago — but it was something along the lines of “I like it, it’s great, but … are you okay??”)

Flash back to my college days, when my good friend who introduced me to the band was doing so by explaining, “yeah, Radiohead is that weird kind of band that’s great to listen to when you’re feeling down. Somehow it can really make you feel better, but sometimes it makes you want to slit your wrists.” I mean, just look at this album art.

Yeah, I screenshotted the display on my phone rather than pull the real album art.

I haven’t actually listened to Radiohead in some time, but, of all things, The Lego Movie 2 has me wondering why. I’m cranking it right now as I reminisce a bit, and, damn. The emotions are high, and it ain’t just nostalgia. They’re a weird sound — more so the more recent the recording, it seems — but no matter the era, there’s a sort of delightful melancholy about their music and lyrics. Somehow, it is both uplifting and depressing at the same time. It’s the odd track from them that doesn’t juxtapose mood and tone — either the words are happy and hopeful against a somber melody, or the words are a march to the noose while the tune is jaunty. This is a band, after all, that stopped playing their biggest commercial hit, Creep, precisely because it was too poppy. And it’s a great song! Listen to the melody, and it belongs right there with the mindlessest upbeat pop songs of the 90s, but the lyrics tell another story:

I wish I were special 

but I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo

what the hell am I doing here

I don’t belong here.

Then there’s the flipside, one of my favorites, Pyramid Song, (pictured above!) which sounds as dire and dreadful as anything you could imagine, but centers on the delightful mantra:

There was nothing to fear, nothing dark.

And I used to listen to Radiohead all the time, just constantly. Walking to class, driving to work, while working, falling asleep … Radiohead was the soundtrack of that time in my life. All the same, I never (at the time) thought of the music as particularly depressing. I guess it just reflected what I was feeling at the time, which was the more or less typical disillusionment and disdain for all things of an introverted college kid. Now, of course, I view it differently. Sure, we go through phases in our lives, and our tastes change as we get older — I can’t tell you the last time I listened to Iron Maiden for example, which I’m sure brings my parents no shortage of joy, because that’s ALL I listened to from ages 15-18 — but I think it’s more than tastes. I’m listening to it now and digging it hard. Rather, I think it’s that Radiohead no longer feels like a reflection of me.

I think about the music I listen to these days and … well, basically all of it is devoid of much emotional content. It’s either airy and ethereal (for writing or reading) or intense and repetitive (for exercising) or poppy and vacuous (when I just want to turn my brain off). And I listen to music differently now, too, than I did in my Radiohead days — I focused on the music more, I internalized it, I identified with it. Now, mostly, I want to ignore it; just allowing it to set a mood. It’s a means to an end, setting the mood for something else I’m doing, rather than an end in itself. I usually steer away from lyrics because lyrics demand concentration. I don’t want to focus on my music, I want it in the background. Setting a mood. Not taking up mental real estate.

So, what? I don’t listen to emotionally charged music. What’s the issue?

I can’t help but wonder. It was while listening to that particular soundtrack during that particular part of my life that I had the first creative ideas that really caught fire for me. Radiohead — and other artists less, what, ignorable, like my current fare? — were the background music as I wrote the play that would later become a novel, and dozens of sketches that, okay, are currently collecting dust, but were arguably part of my current trajectory (minus the last couple fallow months, that is).

It seems, then, not unreasonable to think that an infusion of the same kind of soundtrack might turn the creative screws again, in much the same way as it did once upon a time.

The question, though, is one of time. Hours in the day are fixed, and listening to music like Radiohead isn’t quite as mindless as what I like lately. Do I have the time to engage in active listening like that at the expense of other things I could be doing? And/or, by indulging in such music, do I encourage myself to sink into a depression (because that’s what I now recognize that part of my life as, even if I didn’t know it at the time)?

Well, there I go spinning myself in circles again. I’ll end this with another lyric that seems fitting given the spiral Radiohead has put me into:

Hey man, slow down. Idiot, slow down.

I dunno. I think I owe it to myself to give Radiohead and bands like them a chance again, as an experiment in creativity if nothing else.

Drums and Beats

The word for the day is March, and the only thing that came to mind was time marches on. Which is the annoyingly obvious sort of platitude that I both love and love to hate. I thought, well, I could write on that particular platitude, but it would turn into the meandering nothing that I’m trying, of late, to avoid around here.

Then I went for a run, and after my podcast ran out – which they tend to do when you run 7 miles – (Last Podcast on the Left’s recent offering on L Ron Hubbard, for the curious) I figured I’d crank some tunes, which, I’m pretty certain, is what the kids are saying these days. And as my feet pounded away, it struck me – there I was, kind of sort of marching to the beats of several drummers. AWOLnation. Flock of Seagulls. Fiona Apple. Glitch Mob. Lindsey Sterling. Radiohead. Ed Sheeran. Duran Duran. The Beastie Boys. Twenty One Pilots. Depeche Mode. Regina Spektor. The Foo Fighters. (What is a Foo anyway, and why does it need fighting? Or are they fighting for the Foo?)
And I thought to myself: once upon a time, I had a musical identity.

I could shop in just one aisle of the record shop (and there I feel time marching on again – I haven’t bought a physical cd at a physical record store in, I dunno, a decade? Two?) My musical tastes started and ended with hard rock  and heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Metallica, Guns ‘n Roses, Megadeth. I was that guy, in that group, listening to that music. Long hair, leather jacket. I listened to exactly one radio station. All this – music at the heart of all – was no small part of my identity.

These days? I have a dozen radio presets and it doesn’t feel like enough (though that’s an indictment more perhaps of the advertisement quotient). Dozens of Playlists and stations on Spotify and Pandora that I flip through like the pages of a well-loved book. Even in my personal collection – music I feel strongly enough about to pay for it (unheard of!) – there is no such thing as a favorite artist, favorite song. One day I can’t get enough of a track, the next I’m aggressively skipping it, impatient even at its opening notes.

Love it one day, hate it the next.

Which leaves me all the time marching to the beats of lots of different drummers.

Which is probably just as well; no sense in being the same way all the time. As Shakespeare said by way of Hamlet, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action… but use all gently.”

Use all gently. A little bit of everything when the time is right.

As time marches on.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.

Postmodern Jukebox

Stumbling across Orkestra Obsolete‘s hauntingly awesome (hauntsome?) cover of Blue Monday the other day led me into one of those internet rabbit holes.

You know the kind. You start off clicking off on a link about the recent extinction of bees and six hours later you come to and the lights have been turned off, the sun has descended, you smell funny, and your screen is covered in open tabs on everything from UFO conspiracy theories to the pollenation patterns of South Australian cacti.

TVTropes is lousy for this stuff, as I’ve mentioned before. But YouTube is pretty horrendous for it as well.

Anyway, it was Orkestra Obsolete‘s video yesterday (and Glenavailable’s comment) that put me in mind of the meta-retro soundtrack of BioShock Infinite, featuring such gems as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, REM’s Shiny Happy People, and Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World (my personal favorite). These iconic tracks were re-recorded in the style of the early twentieth century, and they are brilliant, making an already excellent game that much more memorable.

So I was re-listening to some of those tracks and that’s when the bottom of the rabbit hole dropped out from under me, because that’s when I discovered PostModern Jukebox. (Turns out that the guy who does the piano on those BioShock tracks started this group.)

How have I been living my life and not knowing about this? They take the best (and worst) pop music of the last couple decades and fling it back in time to the era of lounge lizards and doo-wop girls and … well.

It’s awesome.

If you’re not familiar, you owe it to yourself to go check it out.

Here’s one of my all-time favorite songs, which is now even more all-time favoritey:

And if you were already familiar, you owe me a fargoing explanation for not cluing me in to this before now.


Orkestra Obsolete

80’s new wave? Old-timey and homemade instruments? Vaguely creepy dudes in tuxedoes and masks? Yes please!

I love this so much.

The (non)Importance of Music to the Runner (or, the 4 stages of running with music)

So maybe you’re thinking of taking up running. Or maybe you’ve been running for a while and you’re thinking of changing up your routine. Or maybe you’re just browsing the net for articles and blog posts about the myriad topics related to running (not that I’ve ever done that). And eventually, the question occurs to you: what should I do while I run? And unless you’re running on a treadmill in front of a TV (protip: this is not the way to run), the obvious answer is to crank some tunes.

Music, I think, has a complicated relationship with running. Some runners swear by their music, others abhor it, still others could take it or leave it. I think that it’s more complicated than simple taste, though, and in classic fashion, I’m going to tell you about my experience with running under the assumption that it may also hold true for you. That’s a healthy way to live your life, right? By making wild assumptions? No? Okay, let’s just move on.

To my mind, the runner goes through a series of stages with music in his or her running career. Those stages are, briefly, Utter Dependence, Evolution, Waffling, and Indifference. Those are chronological, but not fixed, meaning: you will likely pass through those stages or others similar to them, but while I may take five years to move past Utter Dependence, you may clear it in five weeks. Or five days. Or five minutes. I don’t know. There’s no actual science going on at this blog, if you haven’t noticed.

But first, an abstract: Why is music important to the runner? And there’s no one answer: it can motivate, it can distract, it can inspire. I think that running, as an exercise, tends toward one key component that most other sports tend away from: monotony. Say what you will about paces and routes and training plans and running partners, but at the end of the day it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again and again. The monotony of it can be daunting, soul-crushing, and will-breaking. Music is just one way to help deal with that tireless repetition, and it’s pretty good for that purpose…

But yeah, I mentioned stages, right? So:

  1. Utter Dependence. When you start running, it sucks. You get exhausted so fast it’s depressing. Your whole body hurts. Your lungs feel like shriveled apricots. Your heart hammers away on the inside of your ribcage as if it’s trying to escape. You get dizzy and sweat-blind. In short, running is abject misery, and its detrimental effect on the body must be mitigated in any way possible. Music is a perfect distractor. Don’t focus on the burning in your legs, focus on the sweet sweet vocals of … who, Taylor Swift? Kenny Loggins? Flava Flav? (Is that even how you spell Flava Flav?) Don’t dwell on the sucking sound of wind heaving in and out of your pitiful lungs, dwell on a sweet beat and a catchy melody. At this stage in the game, the only thing worse than the monotony of the running is the pain it’s causing in your body, and you need the music to hide from it. So you hide from it in the sweetest escapes you can find, and these are your favorite tunes from your favorite artists. And this makes running bearable, for a while. But eventually those favorite songs get overplayed, or they cease to motivate you and transport you and distract you, and you stumble into stage 2. If you forget your music or can’t use it for whatever reason during this stage, don’t kid yourself; you’re not running that day.
  2. Evolution. You’ve made it past those first runs and you no longer want to die immediately when you head out. Your muscles no longer feel as if they may spontaneously combust after a few minutes of running. You may even be starting to enjoy your runs, though enjoyment is not a prerequisite for this step. No, at this stage, you realize that there’s more to running than merely getting out there and pounding the pavement, and you’ve also realized that the music piping into your headphones can actually have an impact on how you run. In a simplified universe, fast songs make you go fast while slow ones make you go slower. You start to experiment with playlists to plot out your runs in advance: “I want it nice and easy to start out, so give me some Dave Matthews Band, but then there’s that wicked hill that I need some motivation to get over, so I need ‘Call Me Maybe‘ to push through, and then I’m going to mellow it out with some Hey Jude…” yeah, all those things were on my running playlist at one point, by the way. You no longer need an escape from the pain, but you want to be better, so you seek out new music by new artists, music that motivates you and pushes you. But you will still have that day when you forget your phone, or the batteries are dead, or you can’t find your headphones, and on that day, you stay the fargo at home. Until one day, you don’t, and you flop like a fish into stage 3.
  3. Waffling. You’ve come a long way, baby. Your musical tastes have refined, you know exactly the kind of music you need to get the most out of your runs, and you have a playlist or two dedicated to ONLY that music that motivates you. You may even have entire folders of music that you wouldn’t use for anything OUTSIDE of running (I’m looking at you, Glitch Mob). But then the day comes. Your phone is dead, or your ipod can’t be found, or your headphones are on the blink, and on every day like this day, that’s reason enough not to run. But not this day. You decide that you can muscle through without music for one run, so you set out in an eerie silence. Except it’s not silent. Maybe you run in the wee hours, and you’re suddenly surrounded by a calmness broken only by the sounds of crickets and tree frogs and scuttling nocturnal forest critters. Maybe you run in the city, and it’s all sounds of traffic and bustle and car horns. Maybe you’re way out in the suburbs or parks and it’s just occasional sounds of cars and dogs barking and kids playing. You tune in to every sound outside, but more than that, you tune in to the sound of your own body: the regular thump of your feet on the ground, the soft whoosh of the wind past your ears, the pumping bellows of your now industrial-strength lungs. There’s music in that, you realize, a music that’s in its own way more compelling than anything orchestrated and recorded. A music that simultaneously makes you acutely aware of your motion through the world and divorces you from all concerns of the world. It’s during this stage that you begin to grasp that the monotony of the run is not necessarily a thing to be feared and fought against, although you’re still for damn sure reaching for those headphones by default. But you might take a short run without them on purpose once a month or so. You may take the earbuds out for a mile here or there. And this leads you finally, blissfully, into stage 4.
  4. Indifference. It sinks in, finally, that the monotony of the run is a thing to be sought on some days, that the zenlike focus (or, if you will, complete lack of focus) you achieve is preferable to the absent-minded distraction of the music you love. Maybe not every day. Maybe not even once a week. But you know that you can have just as good a run, if not a better run, without music as you can with it. More and more you find reasons to leave the headphones at home, and more and more you find that the not-really-silence of the run is a far better companion than any music you could hope to plan for yourself. In short, there comes a time when you can either take or leave the music and have a good ol’ time either way.

Will every runner go through all of these stages? Fargo if I know, but I sure as hell have. It varies depending on my mood and what’s going on in my world, but I try to go tuneless at least a couple of times a month. The quiet helps me focus, helps me think through issues with my writing, helps me see my way through problems in my classroom. Then again, there are times when I don’t want to think about any of that stuff at all, and for those times, there’s no other way but music.

The monotony of the run is inescapable. But eventually you realize that you don’t have to escape it; you can embrace it and be a better runner, and maybe a better person, for it.

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