Those of you who know me well know the pride I take in my eclectic taste in music, and in my large iTunes library—the result of nearly 3 decades of collecting recordings on various formats. Those who think me a music snob might be surprised by the number of commercial hits in my collection, but it’s true that many of my favorites are somewhat less than accessible: Charles Mingus, Björk, Laurie Anderson, Latin Playboys, John Tavener, Frank Zappa… You get the idea. I love The Clash’s Sandinista! not in spite of the album’s last third, but largely because of it.
But this immersion in avant-garde and difficult music didn’t prepare me for Dirty Projectors, one of my recent favorite bands. In 2010 Dirty Projectors released an album with Björk. I hadn’t heard of the band at all before Björk’s website announced the project, but any Björk album is an automatic purchase for me; I downloaded it and began to listen. And my first thought was: “What the heck is this?! Have I just wasted some of my very limited entertainment budget?
But the album remained in a playlist that I kept listening to for the next few days, and soon I found that I loved it. This music that made no sense was now essential in my life. Several months later I found another Dirty Projectors album—the Black Flag-inspired Rise Above—on sale for $5 and snapped it up. But my first listen again left me thinking: “What the heck is this?!”
Again, a few days of listening made me a fan of the album. So I was somewhat more primed when I downloaded a third Dirty Projectors album—their magnum opus Bitte Orca. My reaction this time: “What is this?”
With these three albums, I didn’t just become a fan of the band; I became exhilarated. Even though I had to bend my ears to appreciate it, I felt as if I were a witness to the reinvention of music. Though it felt strange and even somewhat unpleasant at first, my ears soon warmed to the sound and began to crave it; soon I couldn’t get enough. And that’s what I want from art: to crave it, to be excited at the possibilities it offers, and to let it make me reconsider my understanding of what that art should be.
Of course, I’ve had that feeling many times: the first time I heard Duke Ellington’s A Tone Parallel To Harlem or Laurie Anderson’s Sharkey’s Day; the first time I read Moby-Dick; the first time I watched Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire; the first time I saw Man Ray’s Cadeau—to name but a few. My heart races: This is dangerous! This changes everything.
And truly, everything does change in the end. I’ve heard enough Taylor Swift songs to know that her family-friendly country-pop often includes elements that were once the strict purview of Punk. Thirty years ago, you’d only hear power chords on a distorted Les Paul in bands like The Clash or The Sex Pistols; now they’re everywhere. My mother listens to music that includes musical elements that made her turn up her nose when they emerged from my teenage stereo. The boundaries that our most challenging artists push today will open up to the mainstream in the future.
(For the record: my parents have always been extremely tolerant of my musical taste—in fact, they’ve encouraged it.)
I’m not telling you to run out and buy all the Projectors’ albums; many of you will hate them; others may not even find them that challenging. But consider the music you listen to, the movies you watch, the books you read. Do they make you do some of the work? Do they give you that feeling of exhilaration? Do they make you feel you’re witnessing the rebirth of that art? If not, consider trying art that you have to meet halfway. I don’t want to dig up the old Coldplay vs. Radiohead debate that I’ve had with some friends, as I’m sure that anyone who prefers Coldplay is a
tasteless hick good person worthy of my respect. But I encourage you all to get a little beyond your comfort zone and check out something that might make you cringe at first.
And if you’re already doing so, tell me about it: what art pieces have changed everything for you? What has made you see the world in a whole new way?