Forgotten series: Robert Wyatt – Comicopera (2007)

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“Why would you listen to this?” The question must have travelled through nearly everyone’s mind at some point upon hearing some seemingly offensive bit of music.

For some, it’s some form of cacophony that sounds like cats wretching in unison, for others it’s the latest from whatever pop sensation is being batted about by trendmakers. It’s kind of funny to think that people with such wildly different tastes in music can at least agree that the others’ music drives them up the wall.

How many times have you heard that you just need to get used to something before you really “get it”? Is it really true? I used to believe that and espouse that but the more I think about it, the more I realize that unless you already possess the mindset that you want to understand something, you’re just not going to. Unless that pop fan really wants to undertake the challenge of traditional Japanese music, they’re never, ever going to develop any kind of appreciation for it.

Immersion therapy is not going to make, say, Robert Wyatt’s oddball jazz-rock palatable to a die-hard Britney Spears fan — and, likely, the same goes the other way around (though I will say that the more seasoned, open-minded listeners tend to offer legitimate criticisms as to why Britney’s music is a turn-off.) It’s not a snob-thing, not intentionally anyway. It just gets turned that way because the result is always an argument over what is better, and pop music fans have less of a leg to stand on because that music tends to be “simple.”

But is Britney better than Robert Wyatt? Is chart-topping music better? Is the music that oldies stations turn to when some get older better because it’s what has stuck around? Britney Spears will undoubtedly be the music that remains on oldies stations while Wyatt, well, Wyatt’s not really played on radio, period.

These are questions that go through my head as I listened to Comicopera, another of Wyatt’s fundamentally odd but not off-putting albums from a few years back. Why would you listen to this? Why wouldn’t you listen to this?

Beyond that is a bigger problem, the “get.” I can’t say I “get” this anymore. Maybe it’s something that has come with age, but my tolerance for waiting and waiting for music to appeal to me has left me. Music is entertainment, not an exercise or torture. “Getting” music is as much about your own limits as it is everything affecting you at the time. Maybe I’m not in the mood for Robert Wyatt right now. Why would I want to listen to this? What if I want something simple, Aerosmith or U2, say? How does that mesh with my interests in more complex music — Philip Glass, or Weather Report, or Autechre? It doesn’t. It doesn’t mean a thing.

In times past, this all seemed to mean something, if not just to me, to the world at large. It seemed much more like we were genre listeners: this one’s a jazz guy, this one’s a metal dude, that’s a pop fan, etc. When I was in high school, even college, to some degree, that’s how it was. I was a metal dude, and that’s where I safely stayed. It got boring real quick.

I think, in large part, we can thank the privacy afforded us by iPods and iTunes, people broke down those barriers. I don’t know of many people who only listen to one style of music anymore. It even seems kind of strange now. In the past, music kept us corralled into genres because it was so much more communal and we listened to what our peers approved of. It was fun to get together and listen to the latest whatever that we all liked. Now listening to music is largely a private endeavor because of those little white earbuds, and that’s allowed us to explore without fear of ridicule, opening up worlds of possibilities. Kind of amazing, isn’t it?

And that’s where “getting it” falls apart. You don’t have to work at “getting” music. That’s a ridiculous sham — maybe the conspiracy nuts among us could cook something up where the music industry planted the idea in our heads so we’d work at enjoying bad albums and hopefully push them on our friends. Because all that matters now is if you respond.

You can call up iTunes right on your iPhone and randomly check out any song from some reportedly 18 million songs. Let me just restate that so it can sink in: 18,000,000 songs. Amazon claims almost as many in their mp3 store. Something piques your interest, go find it, give the sample a listen. If it resonates, you can buy it, or the album, or seek out the CD or vinyl. (If they exist …) Maybe for some it has made it easier to keep the barriers up and stay safe — more of the same available, that much easier — but for most people I’ve encountered, it’s natural to try something new without thinking about it. That’s a small-scale cultural revolution.

Two decades ago, you didn’t go to your nearest Wherehouse and just randomly buy music — not if you were sane, anyway. It was a well thought-out decision based on songs heard on the radio, reviews, and friends. Now you can sample practically any album at any time and buy it immediately. (I leave out the obvious option of just “acquiring” music — ahem — for obvious reasons.)

Imagine telling the kids of the next decade the hassles we had to go through just to hear music.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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