Suspicious Minds

There are two adjoining rooms I've grown to love in a house in another city where friendship and music cannot be separated from each other. A table greedily takes up most of the space in one, and I've spent many hours there talking with food in my mouth: a Thanksgiving dinner in which the table divided over the Kinks vs. the Who, another meal in which everyone turned against me because I refuse to give up on Courtney Love. The adjacent room is a cozy arrangement of chairs and CDs and a couch that folds out into a bed. This is where I sleep when I'm in town. I love waking up and trying out records I've never heard. I wait for the people who live there to straggle in with coffee and start the first polite, tentative conversation, which grows grouchier and funnier as the caffeine kicks in. Anything can happen: The last time I was there, we were dancing before noon. By the end of the day, after we've all moved on to liquor, it's on to bolder claims and passionate arguments and long stretches where the only sound in the room is what's on the speakers and ice cubes rattling around glasses of Crown Royal.

British writer Simon Frith begins his book Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard) in a similar room after an ordinary dinner party. His musical meal takes place in Stockholm. He knows that a gathering of friends shooting the breeze over records is a ubiquitous occurrence. But those kind of nights never feel mundane, do they? When sounds and stories and outrageous subjective takes on the Pet Shop Boys, say, are flying around a room in such a way that every word and every noise takes on a deeply personal significance (the Pet Shop Boys, c'est moi), a gathering of friends can feel less like a dinner party and more like an impromptu version of Judgment Day. At those moments, solid friendships temporarily break down over how you feel about Kraftwerk (or even how "Kraftwerk" is pronounced). Frith calls these arguments the "dialectic of liking things," says they are "the common currency of friendship," and sees these periodic performances of opinion as "a way to flirt and fight."

This is a tricky book, and trying to figure out what it isn't about is as difficult as describing what it is about. It's bursting with juicy morsels about the intersections (or lack thereof) among conversation, criticism, and academic analysis, as well as thoughts on the aesthetics of sound, the voice, the relationships between music and sex, and the artificial divide between high art and low, and a lot of ruminations on the social, intellectual, and emotional ways we listen to music. Sound dizzying?

Frith, who teaches at Glasgow's Strathclyde University, is supposed to be an academic. You can tell this by the way he shovels heaping piles of footnotes onto his arguments and the manner in which he indulges in that peculiarly unmysterious academic habit of identifying points by calling them points. But this book is less an academic analysis and more like a joyous pogo. Watching Frith jump up and down next to so many thoughts and theories, you think he's either very drunk or very brave. We wear music like clothes, he says. "Musical taste, in short, is now intimately tied into personal identity; we express ourselves through our deployment of other people's music. And in this respect music is more like clothes than any other art form -- not just in the sense of the significance of fashion, but also in the sense that music we 'wear' is as much shaped by our own desires, our own purposes, our own bodies, as by the intentions or bodies or desires of the people who first made it." He talks about the false promises of love songs: "One is more likely to say 'I love you more than there are stars in the sky' than 'there are ambiguities in the way I feel about you.' " Listening to music involves asking about 12 questions at once. Where are you? Who is it? How does it make you feel? What does it sound like? Did I get what I paid for? What is she saying? How is she saying it? Why did he wear that?

"My argument in this book," Frith writes, "is not just that in listening to popular music we are listening to a performance, but, further, that 'listening' itself is a performance: to understand how musical pleasure, meaning, and evaluation work, we have to understand how, as listeners, we perform the music for ourselves." Frith navigates not only the head trip of inner life, but celebrates the social situations in which inner lives are made public. Dinner-party arguments, Frith says, can become "both a fantasy of community and an enactment of it." We feel this profoundly when we're alone, remembering nights of drink and discussion. Frith's loveliest moment finds him in a solitary Berlin hotel room, listening to a Portishead song that somehow ties together all this "cultural confusion" he's been getting at. And all he can think is, "I wish there were someone here to play this to."

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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