I know you’re going to disagree with me, and I’ll admit it — it sounds crazy — but hear me out.
Music is perhaps the only art form that, if you don’t like it, people are going to hold it against you. It’s perfectly fine not to spend time and money gawking at paintings or sculptures or saving up to buy some of your own. It’s OK not to like theater; people usually learn pretty quickly who their theater friends are. Plenty of us don’t like reading, and that’s surprisingly socially acceptable, too.
But to say that you don’t appreciate music makes people wonder just what flavor of sociopath you are.
We play music in our cars, at our desks, when we work out and cook. Music sets the tone in the movies we watch, and it fills in the lulls of conversation when we go out for meals or drinks. We can apply the music that surrounds us, by chance of a radio station’s rotation or an online playlist’s algorithm, to our own lives at that exact moment. Songs help us cry for the people we miss, dance with the people we love and pass time with the people who fall somewhere in between.
My late father made music his career, playing a 12-string guitar and singing five to seven nights a week at local bars and restaurants. He appreciated his escape from the corporate world but, toward the end of his life, he came to resent something he saw night after night: People stopped clapping. More than that, they stopped listening. They often would engage more with the television over the bar playing a muted football game than with the live human being playing music in the same room just for their entertainment.
Left alone at a table, people in his crowds seemed increasingly uneasy to simply enjoy the set. They almost dutifully pulled out their cell phones to keep them company until their friends returned.
Think about the last concert you saw. How many people watched the show through their phones, snapping photos and recording video for the majority of the performance? They might have stopped, momentarily, to upload their pictures and clips on social media to share them with all the people who weren’t there. I just wonder what they missed by experiencing a live concert through a tiny screen instead of their own eyes. And do they watch the shaky camera-phone video again and again to relive the moments that they only sort of lived the first time?
Ravi Shankar, who brought the sitar to the masses at venues such as Woodstock, wanted nothing more than a sober audience. Rampant drug use seemed to only further connect his crowd to his music, but Shankar didn’t seek that kind of relationship with the people who came to hear him play. “It makes me feel rather hurt when I see this association of drugs with our music,” he told the Associated Press in 1967. He couldn’t understand why someone would cloud the experience of live music on purpose.
What my dad understood but chose not to accept is that music is just the background for whatever else is going on. It’s expected and not always appreciated, kind of like the complimentary bread that waiters bring before dinner. Unless you’re hungry for it, you might mindlessly partake but not necessarily enjoy it.
My fiancé makes tuned melodic percussion instruments and sells them at high-end art shows around the country. He sees people at every show with tattoos of musical notes — a scale on the foot, a treble cleft on the wrist. More often than not, these people pass by his booth without stopping and head straight for the abstract metal sculptures or hand-woven scarves.
When one of those passersby does stop, Adam always asks the obvious question – What instrument do you play? – and he generally gets the same, unexpected answer: Oh, I don’t… I just love music.
Who doesn’t love music? And if you don’t actually play music, but you have music’s written language inked on your body, how are you any better than all the white people who get tattoos that they blindly trust to say “beauty” or “wisdom” or “patience” in kanji letters? We can only hope that the notes wrapping around your ankle spell out the melody for a Carly Rae Jepsen song, because you’re the reason she’s here.
I recently started reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night,” which the author identified as his masterpiece even prior to finishing it. He wrote to his editor before returning to the United States with his manuscript, sending explicit instructions for a homecoming. Among them: “Please do not have a band as I do not like music.”
As I read his words in the preface to the book, my immediate reaction was to like Fitzgerald a little less. I mean, how could he not like music?
But I stopped myself.
Fitzgerald liked writing, and he was damned good at it. Writing was his art, and he left it behind for us to enjoy and adapt. Generations born long after he died continue to find a connection to his characters and their stories. It doesn’t matter whether Fitzgerald liked music — although I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought of that “Great Gatsby” soundtrack.