how i learned to appreciate music i hate

Disclaimer first: I am not a musician. I have never taken a more advanced music lesson than grade eight instrumental. I have never read a music appreciation book nor have I had any formal musical training of any meaningful kind. In short, the way I decide what music I like is completely "by ear". With regard to the people I mention below they are all real folks I know and while I am paraphrasing their quotes due to the intervening years between then and now, I have no doubt that the words below capture the meaning of our discussions.

Okay maybe hate is a strong word.

However, I've had the very good fortune to have met and spent a great deal of time with some talented musicians who's genre of choice varied widely from my own. When I announced to these people "well I don't like (genre X) because it doesn't sound good to me", they were patient enough and interested enough to point out a few incorrect assumptions I'd made. I have since repeated these conversations to others when the topic came up, and now I assemble them here for fun and profit.

1. "I don't like speed metal / experimental rock! It sounds like a garbage truck crashing into a department store!"

Scott, an old friend of mine who was the assistant manager at the first techie job I ever worked was among other things a drummer in hard rock band, a lover of speed metal, and a Frank Zappa aficionado. Several things I cared little about when we first met. He had a binder of Zappa CD's so thick and well stocked that we could ( and did! ) listen to Zappa and The Mothers all day, all week, and never hear the same version of the same song twice in a MONTH.

"What IS this weird crap!?" I would bellow at him. I couldn't fathom what he found so entertaining about the cacophony of strange sounds, trippy lyrics, and bizarre on stage banter that permeated his collection.

What he explained to me is that the joy for him in music of this style was the technical excellence of the musicians. Frank and his crew would spend months in a studio sampling, mixing, jamming, and assembling impossible sounding musical tapestries for release as a studio set. Then they would jam and jam and jam until they discovered a way to recreate every auditory nuance live on stage for their adoring fans.

"Do you have any idea how much talent it takes to do either the studio production OR the live recreation, let alone do BOTH and do it damned well?"

I didn't, that is I didn't until he pointed it out.

Now it can safely be said that I don't have as vast a collection of Zappa on my iPod as Scott did in his binder, but when the time comes to eat some snow I always watch out where the huskies go.

2. "I don't like punk music! There's all the thrashing and the spitting and the smelly kids with tattered clothes not to mention it sounds like four idiots trying to rape their instruments instead of make music!"

Jayman, a friend and ex co-worker who taught me about overclocking, league video gaming, how to love big ugly dogs, and of course punk music spent a good amount of time talking tunes with me when we worked together. As a youth he dropped out of real life, hit the road in a van with some friends and toured around playing their special brand of punk and billing themselves as "a rockin' blues band" to the surprise of many of their patrons.

"Punk doesn't need to being melodious or even ironically out of tune", he told me. "It's about flipping off pop music and mainstream musicians. It says, look maybe I'm a years trained musician or maybe I just learned a few riffs, either way I decided 'fuck it, I have something to say too!' It doesn't need to look or sound pretty, it just needs to be a way to say what you feel with sound."

Among many tunes he played me one that stands out in my mind is "Bleach Boys" by the Dead Milkmen with the opening lines:

I've got some buddies and we all drink bleach
You know we practice what we preach
We're not a drunken bunch of frat-boys
Trashed on beers
Or a stoned bunch of hippies
With no careers
I wanna drink bleach with a Georgia peach

I decided then that punk is about drawing a circle around what you are NOT and saying nope, that's not me. It says instead; I'm this other vague, loosely defined thing over here. I'm not sure where I'll end up, but I know where I absolutely will NOT go.

3. "I don't like Jazz! It's just all this random smattering of notes and people speaking in tongues, like a Southern Baptist all full of holy fervor!"

My paternal grandfather Stu has been playing jazz on a double bass for nearly his entire life. I believe my dad once told me he started at age 11. He worked and taught at the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music, and has played live as well as recorded with an impressive number of talented artists. If you happen to find yourself on Vancouver Island no doubt you can still see him jam live with some friends of his at various festivals and pubs (check local listings :).

"What's with all the button mashing?" I asked him once while road tripping with some quite surreal jazz on the radio. He entirely missed my clever Tekken reference.

"Well music is art right?", he asked and I agreed that it was. "And some art is abstract is it not?", and again I had to concede the point. "Well jazz is the same way. Most of jazz is based on the idea that you don't know what you're going to do when it's your turn to solo. You just make it up as you go and sometimes you're feeling something abstract and strange, other times you may create something melodious and beautiful. That's what makes jazz great, you never have to hear or play the same song twice."

I thought about this for a while and then asked him, "Well okay that makes sense but what's all the jibbering and jabbering and made up words about?". At the time I didn't know there was a word for what I was describing.

"You're not listening my boy", he cheerfully admonished me. "The vocalist is 'playing' jazz too and wants to improvise just like the band, but her instrument is her voice. So she just sings any sound that makes sense to her in the moment and strings it together to describe how the music makes her feel. Sometimes you'll like it and sometimes you won't but the point is that you are there to experience the creation of something new!"

4. "I don't like Country and Bluegrass! It's just so twangy and whiney and it makes me feel like Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel!"

Umm, yeah I've got nuthin for this ...

If you have any thoughts, I'm all ears.