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Friday, July 09, 2004
Every month or so I make myself a mix CD of a semi-random selection of MP3s I've downloaded from various MP3blogs. These tend to be so good (keep 'em coming, folks!) that I play them until I get sick of them. This morning, though, I was paging through an old CD binder looking for something to listen to and I came across a mix I made, oh I dunno, late last year maybe. It included The Knife's "Heartbeats," the acoustic version of same, "Youth Alcoholic," "She Wants to Move," some Stills songs, the Avalanches remix of B&S's "Cuckoo," like that. I grabbed my violin and headed off to work.

I started listening on the platform for the L line, and at first it was just a nice reminder of a song ("Heartbeats") I hadn't listened to in a few months. But after about, I dunno, 10 seconds, it became something else. It wasn't just a sound, it was a particular feeling, a particular resonance, one different than what I had been experiencing, but also different from what I'd expected to feel, and seemingly conjured from nowhere. What was happening was happening, I realized, because I had listened to this mix so much while I first started riding the A train up to Washington Heights on a regular basis during the winter. But it wasn't the season that was being evoked, not really. It was more the particular feeling of learning the ropes of that new route. Now, of course, the A feels like a living room or a stoop, something you're totally used to. I still notice things about the A (the group of schoolkids going to the Natural History Museum, the Yeshiva students, the Dominican guy with his acoustic guitar eyeing me with my electric guitar, the window that won't close, the skunk smell in the 145th street station), but it feels different, more like "something's weird" than "I don't know what's weird since I don't know what's normal, but this long train ride is kind of relaxing." It's strange how the places we inhabit, that we really spend time in on a regular basis, can change in our estimation without changing at all, can start to feel dingy or comfortable (the two are closely intertwined in my mind at least). Is it just that we've absorbed the routine and tricks of dealing with the space to such a degree that we no longer need to be as alert as we were at first? Or is it the yearning for novelty that makes them seem tired, the desire for whatever we don't have that gives them that dusting of dullness in our perceptions? No doubt I could get off the A at any stop besides the 4 or 5 I regularly use and get this same sort of feeling. Or maybe I couldn't--maybe it's the particular situation of repose, of sitting on a train or sitting in a room, that allows you to become comfortable with something. Walking, of course, becomes a kind of repose, a kind of way, when you're walking a familiar route, to not notice what's familiar around you, but at the same time I think we've all had the experience of stopping along our normal route for some reason, and seeing things we've never noticed before, simply because we're at rest. The map of our perceived world is a very strange thing for most of us, a series of dense clusters with less-dense corridors along the way, but very little beyond that. There's so much that lies along the routes we take, so much that we'll never really notice, which we assume is there, but an assumed space is much different from a discovered one--and both are different from a lived-in one.

I listened to this particular mix (and one other, I think) so much during not only this particular route but during this particular experience of the route that it became an indelible part of that experience--indeed, although I don't know how to explore this issue, it seems clear that the experience would have been different with a different set of music, or no music at all. And, of course, there's the fact that I listened to it on headphones, which allowed me, I think, to re-feel the glimmer this morning. Headphones are enveloping, controlling, dictating a particular sound-world that the outside sonics can intrude upon, but it all seems like a mixing error if the headphones are loud enough. They have the ability in this way to totally dictate one sense and, thus, dictate others indirectly. This was what was happening--not a specific association, but a sensational one. I do have specific associations with songs or albums, which I sometimes recapture in this same way (put Black Box Recorder's second album on in the right weather and I'm back on the upper deck of a London bus), but this is different. It was all of a piece. Even the particular transitions between songs evoked something--"Float On" -> "Youth Alcoholic" -> "She Wants to Move" in particular, the odd evolution and backtracking of drums from one to the other--but I think, because it's a transition that, in all likelihood, only feels familiar in this particular way (i.e. familiar in an album way, in the way that you hear the end of "Tame" and feel the beginning of "Wave of Mutilation" before it even begins--insert your own favorite transition here if you'd prefer) to me and no one else, this being a self-made mix after all and I having listened to it a whole lot, that I think all it's evoking is itself. But--and this is what I'm saying--itself in a specific context. It's not just the context, it's the device, too.

I was thinking about the more specific, BBR/London Bus version of this effect while watching Fahrenheit 9/11 last night. During the section dealing with Iraq, they show these two soldiers talking about how you can actually hook up your CD player into the tank's sound system and hear whatever CD you want playing in your helmet as you're going into battle, which they liked, they said, because it got them pumped up. We then see another soldier talking about the CD they always used, and the song in particular (which a soldier sings the chorus of, creepily) is the Bloodhound Gang's "Firewater," whose chorus goes: "The roof/the roof/the roof is on fire/burn, motherfucker, burn."

Now, I was sort of worried when we got to this part, because (gulp) I like that song, despite its various juvenalia/disco-hatin' faults. It's a fun song. And I'd prefer not to have it ruined by associating it with inhuman carnage and destruction.

So, as expected, Moore then plays the song over scenes of destruction.[1] And--at least for me--the song, uh, remained the same. I might think of Iraq when I hear it from now on (especially now that I've written this entry to cement it in my mind), but I'll mostly think of, well, the song itself. That will be the resonance. Why? Why doesn't that ruin it, in a way?

To answer that, I'll first have to take a brief detour. Because the main thing I thought at the time was: so how could you ruin a song for people? Let's say there's a song you really, really didn't like--oh, geez, I dunno, let's just say "Where the Streets Have No Name." The problem is that most strong associations with songs come either through something internal in the song (Scorpions' "Wind of Change" with the Berlin Wall coming down, etc.) or a particular personal connection. You can't really engineer the former (aside from, I dunno, spreading a rumor that "Streets" is actually about anonymous, non-consensual anal sex[2], which is a bit of a stretch) and the latter is just something that happens one incident at a time, like when you win the big prize at ring toss and Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" is playing, or you hear that your brother died while you're listening to "Bohemian Rhapsody" (again, fill in your own favorite example) but these are mostly happenstance, the random conflagration of heightened emotion and the universe's tracklist. You could, I guess, carpet-bomb Nebraska while blaring The Joshua Tree, which would be interesting, but maybe not the most cost-effective thing.

No, I think movies/TV are indeed the best medium for this sort of thing, because it's the best way yet devised to combine visuals, sound, and emotion. Now, this has been attempted before. The thing that most immediately springs to mind is Mary Harron's good faith effort to ruin (well, ruin more, I guess) "Sussudio" in American Pyscho.[3] There's a great scene where Bateman is listening to Phil Collins and having very detached sex with these prostitutes, and he all of a sudden starts dissecting "Sussudio." It's a fantastic scene that has all sorts of interesting implications that I don't have time to discuss right now, but I don't think it really ruins the song in any particular way. Like other uses of this type (David Lynch is great at this--think "Blue Velvet" in the movie of the same name, or Lou Reed's fantastic cover of "This Magic Moment" in Lost Highway), and like the Bloodhound Gang thing above, it can later remind you of a moment, but unlike the effect I'm talking about at the beginning, it does not make the moment real again; it does not summon a reasonable facsimile of the environment. The best comparison I can think of is, as usual, Limp Bizket. A fairly hateful collection of people, they upped the despicable level with their rape-accented performance at the version of Woodstock that took place, for some reason, on the abandoned air force base I drove by every day one summer. Now, they do have a fairly strong association with one of the nadirs of Western civilization, and it would be understandable if you listened to them and thought "rape-rock." But you don't listen to them and get a feeling like you're on that strip of tarmac, setting garbage on fire. The thing becomes the association instead of merely having that association.

But there are two cases in movies where I can think of this working, and they have a suggestive similarity. The first is the famous moment in Say Anything where John Cusack holds the boombox under his beau's window as it plays "In Your Eyes." The other is in A Clockwork Orange, partially with the "Ode to Joy," but far more strongly with "Singin' in the Rain," when Malcolm McDowell lies in the bath of the writer's house, singing it to himself, first hesitantly, and then lustily. Now, what ties both of these together is the fact that these two uses have a particular power over us as viewers because it has a particular power over the characters themselves, as both uses are not the first time we hear the song in the film at hand. In SA, the reason Cusack chooses to play that particular song is not because its words express what he wants to say more eloquently than he himself can (the "mixtape usage"), but because that was the song playing when he and his beau had sex for the first time.[5] In ACO, the bathroom recital make the writer realize that McDowell is the same person who brutally beat him and his wife years before, because that was the song the beaters sung during their rampage. Both of these usages have stuck with me much more strongly than any of the ones mentioned above (a friend can sing "Singin' in the Rain" and I can hear the bootthumps, and "In Your Eyes" just feels like romantic reconciliation now, doesn't it?) because, I think, the association is already made with the characters. They can take on these associations for us because we're being shown that happening. Because we are invested in these characters emotionally, we get the same sort of simulation of the experience that a song can trigger of your own, and so given a few exposures, it's all just transposed so you get the experience, too--or at least your version of it. So the best way to ruin a song is to create an emotionally involving character and then ruin the song for them. Or just, you know, play the damn thing 30 times a day.[4]

I had to get to work early today, and so when I got on the train, it was much more crowded than what I was used to. This, too, was odd--I hadn't had to ride the train that early in about a year, and so the old patterns--moving to the middle of the bench and grabbing the bar if I couldn't find a seat, or leaning up against the far door--just didn't kick in quickly enough, so by the time we left Brooklyn, I was surrounded by an annoying press of people. It wasn't as bad as when I first started riding the train, of course, when I just had no idea what to do with myself to avoid being whumped or falling over, but it was still an odd feeling, like I was riding a different train. I had a hard time figuring out what to do with my violin, but I eventually tipped it on its end and leaned it against the pole.

When I got to Union Square I got impatient with the mix and started skipping through to see what else was on there. I ended up settling on a track I didn't entirely remember but remembered liking, if that makes any sense. I crossed the edge of the park and walked down 15th street. When I got onto 5th Avenue the Avalanches remix of "Cuckoo" started playing, and when I got up to 18th street and crossed at the light, I looked uptown--and it was perfect. There's really no other good word for it. There were no cars at the light, it was a clear day, and I had an unobstructed view up the avenue, all the way to the park. This particular view is one of my favorite things in the city, the view down a long street to the edge of the world, whether it's down 16th to the water on the west side of the island, down 176th to the GW Bridge, or down Allen to the edge of the city, if I can, I always stop in the middle of the street and just look for a second. And this morning I realized what the reason was--when I did that, it felt like, to me, a different city; like Paris, maybe, although I don't know if I'd put money on that. Oh, hell, I will put money on that. It felt like the Champs-Elysees, that view of a broad avenue with a leafy barrier, a real landscape, an open plain in a city of juts. This is partially Paris, of course, and its ban on skyscrapers, but it's mostly New York, where you can live on an island and never see the water, to the point where you forget it exists. Looking up 5th Avenue this morning to that vision of leafiness (it was probably Madison Square Park, if I'm being honest) took the dust of familiarity off that crossing I make 5 days a week and made it feel new, rich, full of possibility, like I could walk up it and do something different for a change. Plains feel unfaithful in this city of canyons, but I felt like cheating.

And now, of course, I am at work, and that feeling has worn off; the dust has settled, the familiarity is back. Here there are expectations and requirements and consequences. It's OK that I have these things--expectations and requirements = money to buy things with, which I'm all for--but there's a qualitative difference between the brief opening of the avenue and this very lived-in space, washed in fluorescent light, that I am trying half-heartedly to change. What it makes me want to do, aside from any of the little rearrangements I'm currently engaged in, the slight elevations and the minor falls, although even the idea of recapturing what the space felt like when I first came in sounds laughable; what it makes me want to do is to take my violin and go to the bathroom and play, because I have always loved the reverberations in a well-tiled bathroom. I will probably not, because that would result in a greater rearrangement than I'm really prepared for, but it is, so to speak, a lovely thought, an excellent evocation of another feeling that I can force myself into, by hook or by crook or by Swedish synth-pop.

[1] Although, unless I'm misremembering, not any of the gruesome, and heartbreaking, footage of corpses that he uses in this section. Whether I'm right or not makes a big difference here, I think, but oh well.
[2] Where the STREETS have NO...ah, you understand.[6]
[3] Weird IMDB find of the day: William Shatner was in American Psycho 2? (aka "American Psycho 2: The Girl Who Wouldn't Die") Weird.
[4] Side note: there's also the issue of people claiming that usage of familiar songs in commercials "ruins" it for them. I've never bought this, and put it mostly down to squeamishness. There's the repetition trick, sure, and that can make you more sick of the song than you were before, but it can't really replace what emotional attachments you already have to the track, since there's no emotional involvement present in the commercial. It can shape people's initial impression of a song, but that's more interesting than problematic, to my mind.
[5] Upon rereading this, I'm still a little unclear why this works, exactly--"Hey, remember when I took your virginity?" has to be one of the least effective pickup lines ever, although maybe he was just trying to remind her how good he was in bed. Er, backseat. Anyway, I am unclear how it works, but it really does! I would take him back.
[6] ...and by "streets" I'm making a joke about how streets, as a passageway or conduit of sorts, could be a double-entendre for "in the butt." And by "in the butt" I mean "anal cavity." I'll stop. So anyway, yes. Nameless anuses.