Incommensurate with my literary habits is my musical illiteracy. Though I steep myself in close reading and relentlessly search for the perfect sentence, when it comes to music I rarely pay attention to the lyrics. Licks, riffs, fills, hooks: those are my aural touchstones, and I cannot quite square that with my mind’s otherwise linguistic attention. I am, for all intents and purposes, a hedonistic listener, in search of gripping viscera instead of lyrical acumen. Of course, there are exceptions (I go to “Bit Part,” by The Lemonheads, whose tight conceit epitomizes a comic lover hedging his position, or “Arabella,” by Arctic Monkeys, quite literally a dream song, drifting in some velvet imaginary). Yet it is a strange dichotomy between my ears and my eyes. The texture of a voice registers long before I consider the words it utters. Famously (in my mind), at age fifteen, I considered Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” a melancholic song about a crack-addicted prostitute, the zenith of romantic feeling, until my dad, amused by my ignorance, illumined its import. Sheeran’s mellifluous, meringue-combing tone buffaloed me into a kind of blind, aesthetic interpretation.
Perhaps my musical proclivities stem from the source of my sound: film. Film scores or soundtracks, although never ignorant of lyrical relevance, aim to create a consistent mood. Their expressivity, though complex, must compliment other formal elements that contribute to the whole. Hans Zimmer’s scores convey the oceanic weight and enigmatic emotion behind the rest of Inception, or the ecclesiastical despair infused into Interstellar. Through crescendos, throngs and other nonvisual, nonverbal devices, Zimmer helps massage the film’s emotional fiber into our subconscious. Even if the soundtrack has lyrics (think Marie Antoinette or Adventureland) they soak us mostly in mood, not language.
While writing this article, and upon inspection, I discovered that my literary instincts, though obviously connected to language, actually do inform my musical taste. In literature, I lunge toward and live for singular poetic moments, encapsulated by Roland Barthes conception of bliss, offered in his seminal work The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes says, the “text of bliss…[is] the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts…, unsettles the reader’s historical, social, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.” This gash of energy and loss creates an erotic clarity, the brief vivisection of reality that reveals something outside it. Barthes says the pleasure of texts comes from moments of complete dissolution, an annihilation that erases all cultural or material constructs, a “neuter” sensation of the common. These flashes of bliss mimic what is most erotic about the human experience. As Barthes says, “Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes? …it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis states, which is erotic.” This philosophy of the text, something I’ve subscribed to unwittingly for years, extends into an understanding of my philosophy of music. Just as all writing aspires to the qualities of music, music, through its aural aspect, allows a shortcut to Barthes’s textual bliss. Instruments create tiny moments of eroticism, and, whereas text requires holistic immersion to puncture the reader with fulgurant bliss, the opening riff of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” by The Stooges incites this state of loss as soon as the sound waves hit your ears.
Acclaimed lyricists like Lou Reed, the late David Berman or even Bob Dylan attract me considerably less than the opening, nerve-scratching riff of Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust,” the fusillading snare of Paramore’s “That’s What You Get,” or even the sonic densities of any Sinatra song. If I wish to read poetry, I will read it unhinged from musical context, a context where I’ve come to expect quicker clinks of bliss. The guitar, affective voice or thumping bass operates on levels outside language, which is to say above the quotidian and our linguistic everydayness, and can immediately make us flinch into ecstatic states.
This notion of literature and music is something we can only hope to “circle,” as Barthes says. It does not relate back to the individual or the subjective, and exists, fundamentally, outside language itself. In these moments, “everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion picture theater.” To fold the dictum in on itself, during these breathless moments, your loss is also your gain.