Aesthetes Versus Fans
One tension that crops up periodically between David and me is that David listens to music as an aesthete, whereas I listen to music as a fan. We have discussed this off-blog, but it’s time to take it on line. The main comment David has made about this on this site — in different terms — is at the beginning of his “David’s lists” post in the “About” section.
Broadly speaking, what this means is that David approaches each album, and indeed each song, more or less individually, starting from the question of what this particular aesthetic object sounds like. This allows him to say, song by song, I like this one, this one’s boring. From some points of view this makes him a better, more serious listener then me. He is more celebratory of small accomplishments and details, and less forgiving of mediocre music in styles we like or writer-performers who actually only had a few distinct songs in them this time out.
I approach a new Bruce Springsteen album (as a not so random example) as a fan of Bruce Springsteen. I see the record as part of the ongoing story of an individual I have had a pretty intense relationship with over a long period of time. This obviously doesn’t mean that I like everything the man has ever recorded, but it does mean that I listen through stuff I might, in another context, consider boring, and I make extra effort to figure out what the guy is saying at the moment. I stop only when I determine that this extra effort hasn’t paid off.
Bruce is an important example because of how we are likely to address the earliest records, prior to Born In the USA (which is pretty much where we both tuned in — I bought The River, probably in ’81 or ’82 (not when it came out) but at age 14 I didn’t really get it). We both agree that the early records are full of overextended songs and overwrought melodrama that doesn’t fit our punkier aeshetic mode; we both agree that the man is capable of clunkers; we both agree that overall, he’s pretty amazing. The difference in evaluation will come from the fact that when I want to hear Darkness At the Edge of Town, I want to hear all of it, because I actively enjoy and learn from the songs I’m supposed to find melodramatic and overwrought: I’ve given Springsteen the space to draw me in, the way a fan does, and consciously chosen to inhabit his aesthetics for the length of the record. I’m happy to let him push me around, rather then to stand my ground and say “I don’t like this song.”
What I am seeking to do, all too much perhaps (because it may be all too “imaginary”), is create an imaginary community with other human beings, a community in which my interest in a set of sounds, concepts, and ideas, expands and become a matter of social importance. “Fanhood” permits me to do this in two ways — by imagining a personal relationship to an artist, and by imagining a field of social commonality (a common “structure of feeling”) with others who are also fans.
(Note that fanhood is entirely distinct from idolatry, which is an unfortunate outgrowth of fanhood in some contexts. If you imagine yourself as a flawed and imperfect human being, you will imagine the artist you are a fan of that way as well, rather then as an idol.)
The implications of this difference turn out, over decades of listening to music together, to be huge, and can be seen in a variety of places on this blog. The most fundamental place, I think, is going to be on the question of pleasure, which David and I have had numerous exchanges about over the years. David really wants to know what gives him pleasure, an absolutely valid question. I figured out a long time ago that huge numbers of things (musical and nonmusical) can give me pleasure, and I was going to have to have some kind of way of determining which ones were worth following up.
Filed under: How we listen | 2 Comments