You Don’t Need To Understand Art

james_2249735bPhoto: ALAMY

Back in September I was in Boston for a weekend visiting a good friend of mine who goes to Harvard. While she was in class, I killed time in the best way that I knew how – by exploring all of Harvard’s bookstores. This campus, according to several proud locals, has the most books stores per capita in America. I didn’t try and validate this, but Harvard seems like a reasonable place to have the most book stores in one concentrated area.

My favorite bookstore was the famous Harvard Book Store near Harvard Square. This store has been selling books since 1932 and it has pretty much every book you could ever want and more. Throughout the shelves are notes from the staff pointing out their selected favorites and why you should read them. Some notes were poetic and moving while others were short and funny, and they were all convincing. I was looking through the shelves and I found a note explaining why you should read James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of my favorite books and a notorious pick for being one of the most pretentious too-hard-to-read books along with Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The person who wrote this (someone named Craig) knows how off-putting this book can seem. He also knows that reading Ulysses is an amazing reading experience if you have the right attitude.


The note reads as thus:


“You will need: Backpack, Flashlight, Patience, Sense of Humor

You will not need: Guidebook, MFA, Intimate Knowledge of Irish History, Prerequisite Reading Of Any Kind

Here’s the deal: you’re not going to get everything. This is perfectly fine. Why should you? Do you really understand your favorite song, or your favorite painting? That is: Is there really some concrete Statement being made that explains why you like what you love? There’s no reason to demand this from a novel. See if you like the words – how they sound. Treat it like a song. It is a beautiful song, an optimistic one. Yes, it is the most optimistic work of art that I have ever experienced. It is a magic spell, a love song for life. Don’t interrupt it with maps or facts. This is a breathtakingly well engineered sequence of words that are heartbreaking, hilarious, and hopeful.”

– Craig


This note is about Ulysses, but you can apply this to music. You can apply this to all art.

You don’t need to understand art. Learning about the process of creating art and understanding its context in which it was created can help strengthen your appreciation, and if you create or write about music then it helps to know what you’re involved with. But it is not necessary.

Music is an escape. It comes from nowhere and it hits you in places you didn’t think existed. It’s communication that often doesn’t require words and it only needs to say one thing – you are not alone. I feel this too. It is a lie that tells the truth. It’s a complete mystery. It is my favorite thing in this world.

Music is the most wonderful thing, especially when there’s still wonder to it.

I think the Internet is taking away a lot of the mystery of art. Do you have a favorite musician? You can follow him/her on at least 8 different platforms. You can look up everything about that person and the information on the music. There’s probably a couple of thinkpieces out there about your favorite album and how it actually represents this and it actually means that and you’re supposed to understand it in this one way. And so on.

Steven Hyden makes a good point in his recent discussion of Kid A of how that album’s release changed the way we talk about music:

“If the music on Kid A no longer seems revolutionary — I eventually learned how much was cribbed from Brian Eno and Aphex Twin — the way in which listeners engaged with Kid A was legitimately new. For many music fans of a certain age and persuasion, Kid A was the first album experienced primarily via the Internet — it’s where you went to hear it, read the reviews, and argue about whether it was a masterpiece.

So much of what we now take for granted about the discovery and subsequent discussion of new music was ushered in with Kid A. Some things have changed since then — advance streams subsequently became traffic generators for media entities like NPR, and now streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have emerged as go-to clearinghouses for sneak peeks at upcoming albums like the recent Drake/Future mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive, which debuted on Apple’s Beats 1 radio earlier this month and then immediately went up for sale on iTunes. In contrast, the pan-platform availability of the Kid A stream seems inconceivable today.

But the routine established by Kid A for how albums are digested remains in place: Listen early, form an opinion quickly, state it publicly, and move on to the next big record by the official release date. In that way, Kid A invented modern music culture as we know it.”

Modern music culture in 2000 that is. But then social media comes into play:

“Of course, old data must always make way for new on the Internet. As Pitchfork and countless other music sites have come to essentially ape the language of the old-world mags they supplanted, the wildness of Web 1.0 has migrated to social media, the principal arena for experiencing moment-by-moment reactions to the biggest “event” albums of recent years. (‘The new Pitchfork is just people talking about stuff on Twitter,’ says DiCrescenzo, who left the site in 2006.) The rosy Gen X nostalgia forKid A has since been overshadowed by the mountain of tweets expended for albums like Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Beyoncé.

The never-ending dialogue can seem overwhelming. In the space of a few days last week, Ryan Adams’s remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 went from being a playful lark to a referendum on gender bias and the pop vs. rock divide. It was enough to make the act of listening to breezy pop songs feel like drudgery.”

That’s what listening to pop music feels like these days. Drudgery. I can’t just listen to something and enjoy it for what it is. I’m not allowed to just like Taylor Swift; I have to love her or hate her. I have to form an opinion and I have to share it now. Music needs an agenda. It has to mean something for all people.

Yet to enjoy music for its mystery is a beautiful thing. Knowing and understanding a song’s place within a specific context is nice, but sometimes I just want don’t want to think. I want to feel it. I want to feel inspired, feel grotesque, feel anything at all. Take me to a place where I’ve never been before. Cheer me up when I want to feel happy. Keep me company when I feel alone. Fill up the space in my head when I feel like something is missing. Come as you are.

Let music be what you want it to be.

Thanks Craig for reminding me of this important lesson. Now go out and read Ulysses. And enjoy the words.


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Leonard Bernstein On The Meaning Of Music (Hint: There Is None)


In 1958 Leonard Bernstein took over the long-running Young People’s Concerts series, and for the first time in the program’s history it was televised nationwide. With this kind of reach, which was unprecedented for any American composer at the time, the man behind West Side Story used his influence and his New York Philharmonic to educate and inspire young children with different musical lessons, all based around classical music.

The most famous of these concerts might be the very first one, when Bernstein, a man who loved to talk about music as much as he loved to preform, was bold enough to tackle one of the great questions of music: what does it mean?

Bernstein attempts to answer this question by using music itself to demonstrate how any sort of meaning only comes from the stories and titles that composers give to the audience. Take away any context and music has no meaning.

Bernstein on what music does not mean:

“When [my little daughter] heard me play [Rossini – “Overture to William Tell”], she said – ‘That’s the Lone Ranger song, Hi-ho Silver!’ Well, I hate to disappoint her, and you too, but it really isn’t about the Lone Ranger at all. It’s about notes – E Flats and F sharps. You see, no matter how many times people tell you stories about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what the music means at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them. That’s all it is to it.”

On the power of words and imagery, which music does not have:

“When you say ‘What does it mean?’, what you’re really saying is ‘What is it trying to tell me?’, or ‘What ideas does it make me have?’. Just like words; when you hear words, you get ideas from them. If I say to you ‘Ow, I burned my finger!’, then immediately you get an idea from what I said or some ideas. You get the idea that I burned my finger, that it hurts, that I might not be able to play the piano any more, or that I have a loud ugly voice when I scream, lots of different ideas like that.

“You see, notes aren’t like words at all. Because if I say one single word all by itself to you, like ‘rocket’, immediately you have an idea; you see a picture in your mind. Rocket! Bang! Picture! But if I play a note, one note all alone – it means nothing. It’s just a plain old F sharp of a B flat. A sound, that’s all, higher or lower, louder or softer – a sound that can seem very different if I play it, or if I sing it, or if an oboe plays it, or if a xylophone plays it, or if a trombone plays it. Very different. It’s all the same note – only with a different sound. Now all music is a combination of sounds like that one.”

Why composers give titles to their music:

“Well, if all that’s true, then why does a composer put names on his music at all? Why doesn’t he just write something called Symphony or Trio or composition Number 900 and 50 and 12 or anything? Why does he give his music a name, like ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, or whatever it happens to be, if it’s not important to the music? Well every once in a while an artist is stimulated to express himself by something outside himself – something he reads, or something he sees, or something that happens to him. Haven’t you ever felt that you wanted to dance or sing because something happened to you that made you want to dance or sing or express your feelings in some way? I’m sure you all had that feeling. Well, it’s the same with a composer…The name doesn’t matter, except to help you tell one [song] apart from the other, and maybe give the music a little more color, like a fancy dress costume.”

Bernstein then plays Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote”, which was made about the famed novel, but he tells the audience a different story of the music, that it’s actually about a prisoner who is waiting for his friend Superman to bust him out of jail. The audience accepts this story and pictures the music, which was created for something else, to match this prison story. This is proof of how much power a piece’s context has over the listener – we will associate the music with whatever story we’re given.

After playing Tckaikovsky’s “Symphony no. 5”, Bernstein concludes that music’s meaning comes from its movement:

“Didn’t you feel triumphant? Didn’t that make you feel like the winner at least of a football game, maybe of a presidential election. Now we can really understand what the meaning of music is; it’s the way it makes you feel when you hear it. Finally we’ve taken the last giant step, and we’re there, we know what music means now. We don’t have to know a lot of stuff about sharps and flats and chords and all that business in order to understand music; if it tell us something – not a story or a picture – but a feeling – if it makes us change inside, and have all those different good feelings music can make us have, then we are understanding it. And that’s all there is to it. Because those feelings aren’t like the stories and pictures we talked about before; they’re not extra; they’re not outside the music; they belong to the music; they’re what music is about.

“And the most wonderful thing of all is that there’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. And some of those feelings are so special and so deep they can’t even be described in words. You see, we can’t always name the things we feel. Sometimes we can; we can say we feel joy, or pleasure, peacefulness, whatever, love, hate. But every once in a while we have feelings so deep and so special that we have no words for them and that’s where music is so marvelous; because music names them for us, only in notes instead of in words. It’s all in the way music moves – we must never forget that music is movement, always going somewhere, shifting and changing, and flowing, from one note to another; and that movement can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can.

“let’s say I play the note and them move to another one — right away there’s a meaning – a meaning we can’t name, a sort of stretch, or a pulling, or a pushing, something like that, but it’s there. The meaning is in the way those two notes move, and it makes something happen inside of you. If I move from that first note to another one — the meaning changes – something else happens inside of you – the stretch is bigger, somehow, and stronger. Now this note means one thing with this chord under [this other chord] and it makes you fell a certain way, and it means something completely different with this chord under it — And it makes you feel another way. And with this chord under it, Or with this chord And each way, each different chord makes you fell a different way.”

So, according to Bernstein, music has no meaning because there is no meaning that you can (or should be able to) define. The meaning is instantly recognizable:

“So you see, the meaning of music is in the music, in its melodies, and in the rhythms, and the harmonies, and the way it’s orchestrated, and most important of all in the way it develops itself. But that’s a whole other program. We’ll talk about that some other time. Right now, all you have to know is that music has its own meanings, right there for you to find inside the music itself; and you don’t need any stories or any pictures to tell you what it means. If you like music at all, you’ll find out the meanings for yourselves, just by listening to it.”

This is pretty heavy stuff, and I’m not sure if these kids were ready to hear Bernstein give this long lecture (the networks agreed; future series would be drastically simplified). But this is still some great insight from one of America’s greatest composers.

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Playlist: 20 Songs For December 2013


By the end of this month I would have read millions of end-of-year lists, and from those lists I’ve come across many great tunes that I missed in 2013 including Bombino, DJ Koze, Perfect Pussy, Thee Oh Sees and more. In December I also listened to some tracks from Bob Dylan, Mutual Benefit, Dawes, Sheryl Crow and more.

Here are 20 songs for December 2013, and happy New Years Eve!

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Playlist: 20 Songs For November 2013 (Via Spotify)


And we’re in the home stretch for 2013! This month’s playlist is more focused on past great music with the exception of Blood Orange and a better-than-I-would-ever-like-to-admit One Direction song.

Here are your 20 songs for November 2013.

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Music History 101: The Life Of Famous Jazz Trumpeter and Singer Chet Baker


One of my favorite artists of any genre is Chet Baker, the late jazz trumpeter who had one of the most unique (and beautiful) singing styles. He was one of the most recognizable musicians of West Coast cool jazz, and his life was full of enough charisma and drug addiction that he helped make jazz itself cooler for a wider audience (he was often known as the James Dean of jazz, and for good reason).

The following video is Let’s Get Lost, a two hour documentary about the life of Chet Baker. The movies goes back and forth between Chet’s early years as a raw talent and his last years as a struggling drug addict (Chet died in 1988 from falling out of his hotel room in Amsterdam. He was 58 years old).

Let’s Get Lost is a fascinating documentary that is worth two hours of your time, regardless of how much you know about Baker or of jazz music in general.


I highly recommend Chet Baker’s music, especially Chet Baker Sings.

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The “Bound 2” Music Video Has Kanye West Driving Through The Desert On A Motorcycle While Having Sex With A Naked Kim Kardashian


Kanye just premiered what he says is the official music video for Yeezus closer “Bound 2” on Ellen. I say “he says” just because this video could potentially be the ultimate troll. Then again, this is Kanye West we’re talking about.

Like Yeezus, the music video is very…uh, very Kanye-ish, which is saying that it’s completely absurd in an awesome way. Depending on how you received Yeezus, you’ll either think this is brilliant or stupid.

Check out Kanye West’s New Video: ‘Bound 2’.

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R. Kelly’s Ignition – The Original

R. Kelly

There are only a few songs that have the luxury of being  considered universally beloved, a song that no casual listener nor devoted music fan can speak badly of. “Ignition (Remix)”, R. Kelly’s greatest gift to the world, is one of those songs. However, many have asked the important question, “Where is the original ‘Ignition’?”

Well the quest for the original is over, for I have finally found it! (or maybe you already did if you own 2003’s underrated Chocolate Factory).


And of course, this song leads into…

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Ryan Adams’s Rock N Roll Is Now 10 Years Old, And It’s Gotten Better


10 years ago this month Ryan Adams released Rock N Roll, a creative left turn album that found Adams trading country songwriting for rock guitars. It was initially considered a commercial failure and, even worse, a bland disappointment for fans (though “So Alive” proved to be a decent radio hit). But 10 years later, Ryan Adams’s own classic-rock album has aged well enough for many fans, including myself, to revisit it and admit that, “ok, this is actually pretty good.”

Looking back on Adams’s career, it makes sense for him to record Rock N Roll. Adams was always more than just a Gram Parsons for a new generation. He had roots in metal and punk music, and his previous band Whiskeytown was considered alternative country simply because of Adams’s songwriting rooted in classic rock and punk. But in 2003, the world was expecting another Gold or Heartbreaker. His previous release Demolition, though now generally well received, was the first Ryan Adams record that wasn’t universally praised by critics and fans, and they all were hoping that Adams would get back in line and release another classic album. Unfortunately for them, Rock N Roll was the exact opposite of what they wanted, and the album got panned even more. But now, after 10 years, many people are coming back to this record with a new sense of love.

There is no country on this record, and the closest we get is the beautiful piano ballad that is the title track. Everything else on Rock N Roll is full of electric guitars and Adams spitting out the most straight forward rock lyrics he has ever written. The songs are sloppy and loose, which makes sense considering that the album was supposedly written and recorded in just two weeks.

Rock N Roll embodies both the good and bad effects of an artists in the early 2000s trying to recapture the classic-rock feel of 70s rock. Nearly ever song is about drug use or about people using drugs, or about using drugs to get over girls (that covers the whole Sex, Drugs, and Rock N Roll checklist). Even the song titles hint at where the  inspirations are coming from (“1974”, “Wish You Were Here”, “Note To self: Don’t Die”, “The Drugs Not Working”). The hooks are undeniably catchy as hell, and Adams knows that he can write a blistering rock song in his sleep. The bad part is that sometimes it sounds like Adams is writing these songs in his sleep. Throughout the album, there seems to be a lack sincerity from an artist who became famous for writing one of the most sincere albums of the past decades, and an artist being insensitive to his fans is a hard pill for some to swallow.

But all the sloppiness and cockiness of Rock N Roll has evolved from annoying to charming. “Wish You Were Here” and “Burning Photographs” are some of Adams’s best songs, and “Rock N Roll” could have been on HeartbreakerRock N Roll, if recorded today in 2013, would sound like a more honest (and more fun) rock record, much more than it was in 2003. It’s not the best Ryan Adams record you’ll ever hear, but I’d be damn if you don’t find yourself turning up the volume on “So Alive” and “Do Miss America”.

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