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30 Days of Songs: Day 12

June 3, 2011

day 12 – a song from a band you hate: The Strokes: “Reptilia”

There are many bands/artists that I do not like. I’m not sure I’d use the word “hate.” When I teach world music, I try to talk my students out of the love/hate dichotomy. Because when you start venturing into other cultures, a lot of times what you’re really hating is your own ignorance of the cultural context. That said, while I can make a convincing case for the study of Beijing Opera, I will probably never listen to it voluntarily. I do not enjoy the sound, even as I can appreciate the artistry.

But right here at home, there are many things that annoy me and make me grumble at the radio. Auto-tune annoys me. Bubble gum pop usually annoys me (although every now and then there is an exception. You’ll find out one of them tomorrow when we get to the “guilty pleasure” question). Miley Cyrus annoys me. Justin Bieber annoys me and so does his hair. But I could also probably say that those idioms are just as foreign to me as Beijing Opera. They are not part of my culture, and, in fact, they are geared toward alienating my generation. And that’s okay. Every generation does it. It’s how we stake out our territory against our parents. Moreover, I generally find such music easy to avoid, because it doesn’t tend to appear on the radio stations I listen to. The one exception to easy avoidance is the all auto-tune, all the time frozen yogurt store, which is largely populated by tweens waiting for their parents to pick them up after the movies in the theater on the other side of the parking lot. In this case, though, the music is actually doing me a favor. If I liked the music better, I would be in danger of eating more delicious frozen yogurt.

There is, however, one band that I do, in fact hate. I will yell at the radio whenever they come on (or yell at AJ to change the station). I will curse Pandora when it’s stupid enough to think I would like to listen to it. The Strokes.

Some of you are probably scratching your heads. What’s the big deal? Sometimes all the musicological background in the world doesn’t trump one thing: the band is totally lame. Maybe you like them. A lot of people I know do. But I don’t see it. Their songs are empty, derivative and boring. They’re all pose and no meat. I don’t like their vocal sound at all. My only consolation is that if Julian Casablancas keeps singing like that, his vocal career is likely to be very short. Their songs are choppy and ill-structured. The voice and instruments frequently sound like they’re singing different songs. The section shifts in their songs are always abrupt in a way that says to me “I don’t know how to write a song” not “I’m making a statement here.” All their songs sound the same to me. I had trouble picking one for this post because I can’t tell them apart. Here’s “Reptilia:”

The video portion of the above comes from a movie I love, Koyaanisqatsi. The original music is by Philip Glass. This clip isn’t the same, but it has similar visual energy to the one above and will give you the general idea of what the passage might sound like in its original version:

Now I happen to really like the music of Philip Glass and I think it works wonderfully in this film as a way of representing repetitive motion in both industry and nature. But I can also see how it could be annoying. And the criticism that “all his music sounds the same,” the same one I leveled at the Strokes, has certainly been aimed at Glass before. His repetitiveness is his defining characteristic. It’s why musicologists find this joke funny:

Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Philip Glass
(repeat until the person you’re telling the joke to walks away)

Here’s the complete film of Koyaanisqatsi, if you want to see how it works as a whole:

If you do watch the film, you’ll see that there’s more musical variety than appears in a single clip, although the essential Glass-ness is always present. I am often, with Glass, reminded of the paintings of Mark Rothko in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. When you first walk into the space, it appears that the walls are covered in all-black paintings. But as you stand there looking, your eyes adjusting to the light, you’ll see that there’s a lot more going on. There is texture and shading. There are other colors hiding in the black. It’s a different kind of complexity. My visit to the Rothko Chapel changed the way I look at and think about contemporary art, in much the same way that Glass changed the way I listen to and think about contemporary music — by changing the focus of my attention and forcing me to take surface detail more seriously. But this post is supposed to be about The Strokes. You can read more of my writing about Glass here and here.

The Strokes do nothing to change my listening or thinking about music. The Strokes seem to exist merely to annoy me by beating me over the head with their mediocrity. I will admit that a single Strokes song mixed into my listening might not bother me if they didn’t keep turning up all the time. I probably would be okay with them as a one-hit wonder. But because of their omnipresence, I have developed a visceral response to their music that is pretty close to hate. I listen to the last line of “Reptilia” — “I’m not drowning fast enough” and I think, YES.

What bands drive you nuts?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    June 3, 2011 8:36 am

    Hair bands from the ’80’s – Dee Snider and all of that ilk. Also, Genesis and ELO. Can’t stand them. (There are a very few ELO songs I can listen to but only because they take me back to a time when, as a kid, I listened exclusively to Top 40 radio.)

    I’m disappointed in Lady Gaga. That Poker Face song is so….derivative of the bland ’80’s synth pop stuff (in my non-scholarly opinion – maybe it’s derivative of something else but original, it is not.). Too bad she couldn’t be better. I like her showmanship but not much else.

  2. June 3, 2011 8:53 am

    Lady Gaga wants to be 1980s Madonna. I’m not a fan of hair bands and only like a few ELO songs and I can’t stand late Genesis, but I love the early stuff with Peter Gabriel. There’s a soft spot in my heart for prog rock.

  3. June 3, 2011 9:08 am

    Fantastic post. My favorite undergraduate paper was an analysis I wrote on Knee Play #4 from ‘Einstein on the Beach” (the one that begins with the frenetic 1-2-3-4 counting). The structure of the different measure lengths stands up very well.

    I thought that a song I like is a Strokes song, but I looked it up and, thankfully, it isn’t. It’s ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers.

  4. June 3, 2011 9:27 am

    I can’t stand The Roches. And because I love so much folk music and harmony, everyone always assumes that I do or will love them. But every time I have heard them, they’re horribly off-key and set my teeth on edge.

    I will also probably always loathe Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – but that’s because I had to analyze the entire piece as the final assignment for AP Harmony in high school. Yes, it was almost 25 years ago. No, the loathing hasn’t faded.

  5. freshhell permalink
    June 3, 2011 10:01 am

    *jaw drops* I love The Roches – not all of their stuff, mostly the earlier albums. I can only listen to them when I’m alone in the car and can sing with it.

  6. June 3, 2011 11:38 am

    Freshhell, I recently rewatched Crossing Delancey and thought of you because of the Roches soundtrack (one of them is also a minor character) and also Cranky, because I first saw it with her when we were staying at her mom’s house for some reason that I no longer remember. Rosh Hashanah, maybe?

  7. freshhell permalink
    June 3, 2011 1:01 pm

    Not sure I’ve ever seen that. Now, I’ll have to find it.

  8. June 3, 2011 1:35 pm

    It’s cute. Amy Irving pre-Spielberg is the female lead. David Hyde Pierce has a cameo as a cello-playing bookstore employee.

  9. Cranky permalink
    June 3, 2011 7:01 pm

    I loved that Philip Glass joke.

    Now to set myself up for major ridicule: I have a strong dislike for the Rolling Stones. I am skeeved by them and their music and everyone I know thinks I’m nuts. I do, however, love the song You can’t always get what you Want.

  10. June 4, 2011 2:11 am

    Excellent post.

    It’s funny — I think the Strokes are boring, but I really like Julian Casablancas’s “Out of the Blue.” it has a great hook, and is fun to sing in the car. Does that advance art? Maybe not, but I relate to the lyrics, and so maybe that’s enough art for a pop song.

    I have always really disliked the song “Surfing Bird.” and that Michele Branch/Santana song in which she’s “knocking down the door of the candy store.” Grating.

  11. June 8, 2011 3:33 pm

    the grateful dead makes my skin crawl. i can’t begin to explain why.

    i love your knock knock joke.

  12. freshhell permalink
    June 9, 2011 10:09 am

    The Grateful Dead. There may be nothing worse than that bad. Nothing.

  13. freshhell permalink
    June 9, 2011 10:09 am

    BAND. Not bad. But, yes, bad too.

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