~Austin R Ryan
Messy music arguments occur every day, both sides fighting to a standstill, because you cannot control the way you hear things. The metric for music bliss adjusts individually. I acknowledge this subjectivity and I try to adapt to it. I could not adapt when my sisters and I sat down to make a playlist for our graduation party. Within five minutes of examining our respective draft picks, we got to criticizing. It was that classic music argument between the pretentiously hip musical enthusiasts and the wearyingly poppy radio heads. It was the big iTunes library versus the small, the niche versus the popular, practically closer to a stereotype of a musical argument than an actual one. The argument became nuanced once I brought in my instrumentals. I started to make a heated a defense of instrumentals as party music which quickly escalated to acclaiming instrumentals as a whole.
The argument reminded me that music was subjective but that some biases endure more than others. The vocal bias rose to a sharp prevalence, and suddenly I felt the effect of it flood into my eyes and ears. That high from feeling discredited overwhelmed me and I would lash out at the thought of anyone only listening to music with lyrics. I would recklessly feed my assumptions off of a bias I felt pervasive enough to shoot through every pore. I assumed my metal head friend did not enjoy Russian Circle’s “Enter” because it was an instrumental. I could not reconcile that the heavy guitar, the immense sound of the drums, the mesh of metal elements played out to perfection within that track did not resonate with my friend. I ignored that Russian Circles did not resemble black or heavy metal in the drumming style or even in the heavy chord progressions just to flatter my own fury. After all, I hated that bias so much that I had to love the act of hating it. That hate became a crucial part of me and how I formed my opinions. If I took that away from myself I would discredit my own opinions.
Essentially, I started thinking that the institution of listening poised itself against one of my favorite elements of music: the instruments. Everyone sung along to songs, but no one remembered the drum beats or the way that bass pulsed quietly in the back. Rappers with good rhymes could lace their lyrics over a beat that stayed in the exact same spot for five minutes and have a horde of people chant their lyrics religiously while great instrumental groups like “If These Trees Could Talk” hardly got any attention. This vocal bias seemed unjust, it seemed systematic, and it seemed oppressive. Like any teenager I got the feeling that my surroundings oppressed me and I gave into thinking like a prick. Occasionally I acted like one too.
I won’t deny the presence of a vocal bias. Such a thing does exist. I have seen an unfortunate number of people ignore good jazz and post-rock because of the absence of vocals, but for the most part the vocal bias does not dominate someone’s music taste so extensively. I think the radio demonstrates that vocals tend to garner the most attention in listeners, though everyone listens to more than just the singer. Most songs that land on the radio seem to do so because of a short, sharp and upbeat nature upheld by sunny pop vocalists.
The song selection in radio is not problematic, but it can isolate folks like me. I am heavily oriented towards instruments, and I usually do not pay attention to what a singer says until the third listen. The lyrics do not worm their way into my memory until the fifth listen. I can respect acts that rely on their singers, like Passion Pit, and I can love bands that use singing to come together, like Portugal. The Man, but artists like Regina Spektor or Erykah Badu often fail to hold my attention because of the lack of the layered and dynamic instrumentation that melts my ear drums. The reverse may subvert instrumental acts, or even plenty of progressive rock bands that clearly do not center their acts on their feverishly high pitched singers that tend to squawk out blind and ideological sentiments. Even though most people can acknowledge that music operates in subjectivity and bias, sometimes the structure of listening provides divides too wide to bridge. The vocal bias, whether toward or against, might be the largest dichotomy I’ve ever encountered, or at least the easiest one to identify.
Like any bias for something as subjective as music, you cannot absolutely counter it. I often try to stretch my music net as wide as possible, because it sucks to hate a song. I feel loads better when I do not feel the need to scorn a song on the radio, coming from a stranger’s computer, or being shown to me by a friend. Having a bias large enough to rule out a genre usually forces a person to either leave social circles or change tastes. Back in high school arguments over rap and rock could divide a class in half, but maturing I found that myself and others got to accept popular rap or rock out of certain social necessity because trying to commandeer a friend’s radio usually did not go over well. After driving for thirty minutes, listening to a friend’s music, the best strategy was to find something you liked in the music. The cross became too much to bear otherwise. I found it takes longer to mature away from vocal bias, whether you focus or ignore lyrics. Still, the process needs to be indulged. Nowadays, with more bands creating more abstract sounds, the simple vocal and instrumental formulas fade and shit. Where in one time everyone knew similar bands and similar hits, now a discussion can devolve into name drops and recommendations. We see fewer and fewer people tune in to the radio, so now where music once formed easy social links it becomes a gauge for adaptability. I may always hate Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and most country music on the whole but I can and do try to find the best in vocal centric sounds so I can at least tolerate them. A vocal bias provides an easily visible divider, but it no longer suffices to ignore the divider as you might before. Now it makes more sense, with Jazz and other instrumental heavy genres resurfacing, to seek the best in what you might think to be the worst.