“If music be the food of love, play on.” William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene I, Line 1
When I was little, I didn’t get why people listened to music.
I mean, sure, it sounded nice and the lyrics could be catchy, but in the tender years of childhood youth, I didn’t get the point of having favorite songs, favorite bands, or favorite composers. Music was music. Sometimes it was nice to hear and other times it was just downright terrible, but it wasn’t anything special. It certainly wasn’t “magical” or “healing” or touched me in some mysterious touchy-feely kind of way.
And while my classmates begged their parents to let them go to a Britney Spears/NSYNC/Backstreet Boys/[insert 90’s teen pop group of your choice], I was perfectly fine, chilling at home for a music-free evening with my family.
A lot has changed since then. Though I don’t put much stock into American music (that aspect hasn’t changed), I have become more interested in following J-Pop (Japanese pop) trends for the last few years. Which might be shocking considering how much flak J-Pop gets lately (the general consensus seems to be that J-Pop’s golden age ended somewhere in the late 90s).
[Note: To be fair, the oversaturation of J-Pop factory-produced boy/girl band groups might have something to do with this. I don’t know enough about the idol industry to have an informed opinion on whether or not this is a “good thing” but it does represent a marketing shift in the way music is being produced and how artists are defined, which itself is an interesting topic in its own respect.]
When you ask someone why they listen to music, you’ll get a variety of answers, typically along the lines of receiving some kind of benefit from listening to it. Whether that benefit be nothing more than “I like how it makes me feel” or as therapeutic as “It helps me purge my emotional stresses in a non-destructive manner”, for those who are avid music listeners, music is often considered an essential part of life.
I like to look at not just what kind of music I like listening to but why exactly I listen to it. Chalk it up to my tendency to analyze every little thing, but after several days of mulling over this (while listening to J-Pop, of course), I think I have a clearer picture of why I’m so obsessed with J-Pop. I’ll speak more generally about music, but will use J-Pop examples since that’s where my musical tastes generally lie.
Speaking about music in general, music appeals to me because it speaks to my intellectual fixation on language and the written word.
Music and literature intersect much more deeply than people might realize. Songs, especially the ones with lyrics, are essentially poems set to notes and a rhythmic meter. You have ballads, which are poems made specifically for sung storytelling. Even the weird, seemingly hallucinogenic-induced modernist poetry of Stein and Eliot–fragmentary thoughts that tell of a world once whole–have a melodic (or cacophonous) strain to them. Poetry draws much from music, and even if the poet’s not consciously thinking about it, he/she has a keen ear for words that not only communicate well but sound good too.
An academic tangent…did you know that writers can blend physical experiences through the juxtaposition of sensate imagery?
There’s an actual neurological condition where experiencing one of the five senses can stimulate another sense. For example, you hear a note and you suddenly see “blue”. Or salty things taste “high-pitched”.
In literature, synesthesia refers to the specific literary technique where the writer uses figurative language to describe characters, feelings, ideas or places in a way that appeals to more than one sense. It makes the description fuller and more lively and poets love doing this. Check out Keats’ description of drinking wine in his “Ode to a Nightingale”:
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! (11-14)
That’s some wine our dear poet is demanding! You can see here how he combines the imagery of green countryside earth with the physical sensation of satiating thirst. Mix that lush cocktail with a call for dance and song and sunburnt laughter and we have a potent brew that we not only taste, but touch, see and hear.
Despite the round-table discussion being an essential part of my course of study, I’ve noticed that the acts of reading and writing have always been mostly solo endeavors. You have the stereotypical image of a person, their face buried in a voluminous book tagged with so much commentary that the footnotes easily outstrip the actual content. Listening to music–especially when you know it’s not exactly the mainstream stuff your friends or classmates listen to–is usually a private affair for me, which comes to my next point.
Although listening to music can be a deeply personal (and private affair), it doesn’t have to be. And once you find the right people, listening to music can be an enjoyable social experience.
I’m no hikkikomori by any stretch of the imagination but I will admit to being a pretty socially awkward person. I get really tense when there are too many people around (too many factors to take into account) and it takes me a while to warm up to strangers. It’s not that I don’t like being social but I’m not a natural at it and it’s definitely something I need to constantly work at.
How does socially awkwardness tie in with music? Well, in any case, music preference is a common conversation topic. You feel an instant kinship with someone who has similar tastes and for better or worse, it’s a quick and easy metric people can use to draw certain conclusions about you.
Getting into J-Pop, funnily enough, helped me meet more people. Sure J-Pop’s not as popular as K-Pop in the United States, but I was blown away by how many people (who also happen to be anime folks) were familiar with many of the same bands/groups I was (i.e. Asian Kung Fu Generation, L’Arc en Ciel, SID, AKB48, Mizuki Nana, GreeeeN, to name a few). It was hitting two birds with one stone–I got to exchange some great music with friends and I got to meet people who were really into anime like I was.
Music, J-Pop included, has the power to connect people. Much like how a story can elicit different reactions from people, a song similarly evokes varying emotional responses. Sometimes people like a song because they agree with the lyrics, or they just really dig the composition. Other people like certain songs because they’re attached to certain memories they find very pleasant.
Emotional attachment to music is a double-edged sword. While certain songs can uplift your spirits, other songs can crush them.
While I’m still feeling mushy-gushy, let me give an example.
But seriously. Once upon a time, not so long ago, I crushed on a friend. A good friend. Someone who was arguably just as crazy about anime and J-Pop as I was. It was my first real crush and I, in typical fashion, had no idea what I was doing. My idea of subtlety was something along the lines, “Hey, how about a raucous karaoke night of our favorite J-Pop songs, just the two of us?”
As you might imagine, it didn’t end well. Your textbook example of unrequited feelings. The whole, “Boy-this-is-goddamn-awkward-so-let’s-pretend-this-never-happened” deal. Before I knew, our friendship kind of just wilted and died a malnourished death. It was horrible. Cue in the spasms of self-loathing, confusion and just plain resentment.
Worst of all, I went through a hellish period where I couldn’t tolerate any J-Pop. Simply because it reminded me of the friendship I’d lost. And let me tell you, it is a horrible thing when you’re unable to enjoy the things you used to enjoy. But the post-rejection mope is a strong force indeed and I had grossly underestimated my strength to tackle it head on.
I’m not a big fan of Vocaloid or Hatsune Miku but there is one song I really like, “Senbonzakura” (literally “A Thousand Cherry Blossoms”). It’s arguably the most popular Hatsune Miku song out there and it’s not hard to see why.
For reasons I don’t understand, my crush also incidentally really likes Hatsune Miku (and, in fact, introduced this song to me). I grew to like her too, mainly because of this song (which actually makes some clever references to Japanese history) and because my friend liked it so much. Which is why it hurt to listen to it for a long time. If I was feeling particularly masochistic, I would even play it, with every note sharply punching me as hard as that rejection.
Much like when we read a text, each reading is never completely the same. Our life experiences shape our perceptions and beliefs and in turn, our perceptions shape the way we experience stories and music. In this way, we are as much a contributor to the whole experience called “story” or “music” or “poem” as much as the author or composer. Not that this belief belittles the author’s creative process–it’s just that the story isn’t really complete without a reader, and similarly, a piece of music, no matter how masterfully composed, is unfinished without an audience.
“Where words fail, music speaks.” -Han Christian Anderson
Obviously I got over it seeing how I’m back to shamelessly consuming anime and J-Pop. And yes, Miku is as kawaii as ever. But while in that funk, I did get some time to do some seriously cheesy soul-searching. I can’t say I came to some profound revelation, unless something along the lines of “You can still enjoy J-Pop and anime even if it brings up bad memories” counts but that period where I didn’t watch anime or listen to any J-pop music, save for the really dark ones, did make me realize how much I actually missed it.
Time may heal all wounds but there’s nothing like some soulful notes of epic to expedite the process.
Why do you listen to music? And if J-Pop’s your thing, what is it about J-Pop that you like? Any songs that hold a special meaning for you?
Past romancing debacle aside, Senbonzakura is a pretty awesome song. In fact, it’s so darn popular that there have been a million covers made. Some are better than others. For the original version, click here. For those who aren’t Nico users, click here for the Youtube link.