“I just don’t get it. I’m not hearing anything that hasn’t been done before.” So my dad tells me as I play him my latest tastes in dance music. I only put it on because I felt defensive. Every so often, he’ll declare that nothing interesting has happened in popular music since the 1980s and it infuriates me. I need to stop taking the bait.
“Can you not hear the layers of texture and the complexity in there?” I’m talking about ‘Lumen’ by Throwing Snow, but I wonder if I should have picked ‘Tesseract’ or Floating Points’ ‘Peroration Six’, or some tune which jumped through more of dad’s arbitrary hoops. I’m trying, but I’m pretty convinced that he’s listening with a closed mind and that this is a futile exercise.
“All I hear is a 4/4 beat and some electronic noises. It doesn’t seem like electronic music has moved forward since the Pet Shop Boys.” I know he says that to annoy me, but it’s absurd. Most types of EDM have more in common with Steve Reich or Philip Glass than the Pet Shop Boys.
“Oh come on dad. You may as well say folk hasn’t moved forward since 1400 because it’s still string instruments and vocals!”
“Not at all! I just don’t hear anything in this, I’m sorry.”
That’s the key difference that I’ve been trying to get him to see here: that he respects music if he “gets” it, but dismisses it wholly if he doesn’t. And to “get” something, you have to leave yourself open to what other people see in it, to your own potential musical illiteracies and the limitations of your listening context, and, indeed, your social position.
I whip out a more political example. Dad, in his social distance from Kendrick Lamar, would struggle to enjoy ‘Alright’ without committing to understanding it in its context of modern African-American male experiences, and also its enriching application to the Black Lives Matter movement. I think music allows us to build a bridge of empathy between very different social worlds, but only if it’s greeted without cynicism or narrow-mindedness.
The argument sprawls on, because I’m not giving up and now he’s the one getting defensive. I try to contextualise the music we were originally arguing about – I say that much of it is unashamedly “body music”, and so the terms on which it seeks value are inevitably different to his. After all, he’s never enjoyed clubs and cannot claim to understand what pleasure and sense of collectivity people get out of them. And yet people do. Is he denying, then, that the dancefloor experience is valuable? Is it not worthy of our time on earth to dance, to move and feel jubilant together and share in the same sensory experiences?
And so he changes tack: “I just don’t see what about this music would make you want to dance. Samba, yes, or tango, there’s some amazing rhythms in that which these musicians don’t even seem aware of. I’m just hearing a 4/4 beat.” There we get to another crux: he prizes the lone listener (in his case, an educated, critical white man making his educated, critical judgments), extracting music from its cultural context, which, he assumes, inevitably debase it and remove the possibility of seeing it objectively. Once he’s removed dance music’s cultural meanings and uses, he determines that the music is not “good”. He argues as if his listening context and mind is blank, totally rational. Again, this is what I’ve been trying to argue him down from: his kitchen in Derbyshire is just as much a meaningful, specific listening context as the club in Elephant & Castle where I first heard Throwing Snow perform. It’s just the wrong listening context for understanding dance, and so it’s bound to drain it of some of its purpose and enjoyability.