Where Are Your Musical Blind Spots?
Sure, the internet has made musical generalists out of us all, with everything from Indonesian degung, Renaissance madrigals and Lil' Kim right at our fingertips, but let's face it, even serious music geeks have blind spots. What's yours? That's the question we're asking this week.
Classical music, with its near 1000-year history, provides plenty of obscure pockets, but my musical blind spot is huge and right out on the open — Haydn. Yes, Haydn — the man who almost single-handedly invented the symphony and string quartet. I know all about his inventiveness and wit. And I've explored several pieces closely, but the experience is rarely memorable. The Haydn bug has yet to bite me.
How about you? Is there some music, band or genre that you know you're supposed to like to but just don't, or have never taken the time to learn what all the fuss is about? Give us some ideas about your musical blind spots in the comments section.
Figuring I wasn't alone, I asked some of my colleagues here at NPR Music to divulge their musical blind spots. And tomorrow we'll hear from pianist Jonathan Biss.
Bob Boilen: Creator/Host, All Songs Considered:
I've got a number of musical blind spots and they're major. Hip-hop (most of it) is one, but I'll talk about the other, opera (all of it). The opera blind spot is odd, because I hear the magnificence. I hear the human voice in its majesty, a vehicle to express the soul. But I feel none of that when the music plays and the singer sings. What overcomes me is the sense that someone is singing at me instead of to me. Some of it is the language barrier but the singing style feels so oversung, so exaggerated and so humorless that I just want it to stop.
I'm sure I'm wrong. I'm sure one day someone will sit me down and say "Bob, listen to this ... " but that day hasn't yet come and by now I thought it would. I used to joke that my record collection would collect dust as I got older and I'd be buying boxed sets of operas when I'm in my 50s. The other day, I pulled out my vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin II. That's how I'd like opera to grab me.
Robin Hilton: Producer, Co-host, All Songs Considered
I have more blind spots than I'd like, but the one that's troubled me the most over the years is my unwavering aversion to the album Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. On paper I understand why it's widely regarded as one of the most influential pop albums of all time, and every music lover I know and respect adores Pet Sounds. But there's not a single note on it I can endure. All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen thinks it's because I had to sing "Sloop John B" ad nauseam in high school show choir. I'm sure that didn't help. I've probably deleted Pet Sounds from my library, then added it back a dozen times because I know I'm supposed to love it.
Felix Contreras: Co-host Alt.Latino, Arts Desk Producer
My blind spot? Rap. And I listen to lots of rap, in both English and Spanish, for our show Alt.Latino. However, thanks to my co-host Jasmine Garsd, I can now hear how some rappers use the rhythm of language to innovate and improvise. Musically I get it. But only a few really stand out to me and the rest seem to be just talking fast.
Ironically, what really tested my tolerance was "Otis," the blockbuster Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration that sampled Otis Redding. It may have been the hit of the summer but it was lost on me. It seemed ill-advised at best, stupid at worst, for these two gentlemen to sample a vocalist whose command of the rhythm of language set a new standard for expression.
After just a few bars of rapping I turned it off: The rhythm and pacing seemed pedestrian in comparison to the real Otis. I still don't know what the end of the song sounds like.
Mike Katzif: Producer
As someone who came of age in the '80s, '90s and 2000s, it might come as a surprise that the biggest musical blind spot I have is hip-hop. Hip-hop also came of age during this span, yet while so many of my friends were there to experience its evolution in real time, I often feel I missed a bus I am frantically chasing so I can get on board. I do know and love a lot of the influential artists that pushed themselves onto even my radar: Jay-Z, Kanye and Lauryn Hill; De La Soul and Public Enemy, OutKast, Beastie Boys and of course The Roots. But I know I'm missing out on some excellent music under that level, the artists you have to dig a bit deeper for.
Hip-hop, at its best, is an art form and a genre I completely respect, but I I've had difficulty latching onto for one big reason: the way I hear music. The initial elements I seek out when I first listen to a song are melody, harmony, the arrangement, the rhythm and the phrasing. But I have a hard time parsing lyrics — in rock, pop, whatever — and I have to truly focus and often read along to discern what the artist is singing about. The flow of a rapper's lyrics, the wordplay, the internal references are all things I can acknowledge I don't fully grasp on first pass, but that's a muscle you have to exercise. And in the past year I've been actively trying to address this gap. One of my favorite albums of 2011 was Black Up by Shabazz Palaces; I also enjoyed newcomers STS, Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown. Slowly but surely, I've been trying to fit it all together, so I can do more than silently nod along.
Eleanor Kagan: Production Assistant
I hail from Chicago, so suffice it to say I get verbally bludgeoned whenever I reveal that I'm not a fan of Wilco. "But they're Chicago royalty!" people say. I know, this secret of mine is shameful. It's not that I don't like Wilco — honest. I'm just daunted that this band has so many records, has gone through many musical and stylistic phases that require understanding and contextualization, and boasts a fan base so rabid that its esteemed members can name each piece of Nels Cline's gear and know all the lyrics from all of Jeff Tweedy's side projects.
It's not like I haven't tried. I can attest that the band is mesmerizing live. I love the tonal shift and buzzy guitar freakouts in "At Least That's What You Said." And "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" can really needle my emotional core. Even "Art of Almost," off Wilco's latest The Whole Love, spellbinds me. But that's just it: I can't seem to get past the opening song on any Wilco record. Each album kicks off with such intensity that once I get through it, I'm spent. So help me out: Where do I begin with this band?
Dominic Martinez: Music Intern
My musical blind spot is opera, especially Romantic-era composers like Wagner, Rossini and Weber. Several arias and overtures from Carmen, The Magic Flute and Der Freischütz have caught my ear. And I also find some of the compositional aspects (what goes on between the arias and recitatives) quite fascinating, but I still can't get myself to listen and really care. That said, I have never been to a live opera performance, so my opinion could very well change once I see one up close and personal. It's hard to listen to a complete performance on the radio when I have no clue what's actually going on.