Footnote to beautiful

I wondered if I was completely right to say that “beautiful” isn’t much of an aesthetic category for younger people. Of course it is for some; there are majorities and minorities in anything you look at, and also exceptions to every rule.

But is “beautiful” at the very least not a good description for the alternative rock a lot of smarter younger people listen to? I dialed up all my alt-rock tracks on my iPod, turned on Shuffle, and listened to them in the random order the iPod generated. The artists were Arcade Fire, Bjork (her six-CD Family Tree retrospective) Broken Social Scene, Death Cab for Cutie, Mi and L’au, Sigur Ros (their () album), and The White Stripes (Get Thee Behind Me Satan).

Very little of this music was beautiful. Or at least that’s not the first (or second or third) word that came to my mind as I heard it. Words that jumped into place were wry, poignant, homemade, hopeful (The White Stripes’ “Forever For Her”), weird, sad, desolate (Mi and L’au, “How”), complicated, brainy, odd, forlorn. I won’t swear that the preponderance of sadness here isn’t an accident of selection, though joy is pretty clearly not a common emotion in alternative rock.

The song on right now, as I jump into this shuffle for the third time, is Sigur Ros’s Track 6 (track numbers are the only way the songs on () are identified). It sounds homemade, because of the rather raw, rather casual drumbeats that run through it. Plus brainy, in its long compositional unfolding (completely unlike any pop song). Also brainy and edgy in its occasional dissonant electronics. Plus deeply sad in its emotional landscape. And odd, if you like, because all these things come together, but then that’s a standard feature in this collection of styles.

It’s only in pop standards, show tunes, top 40 hits, simple country music, and old classical masterworks that emotions are largely unambiguous. The oddness I often hear in this shuffle goes deeper than that. It’s a deep kind of awkwardness, that maybe comes from trembling on the edge of the inexpressible with musical tools not clearly defined. Note that this doesn’t mean the groups are musically undeveloped. It means that the style is very much evolving.

Nobody’s saying what anyone “should” do. Too much technique, or too smooth a technique, is a worse problem. If that’s what you’re offering, then more than likely everything you say will be predictable.

Now Track 2 comes on. Powerfully sad. Heartbreaking, really. A soft scratch of a needle on an old record (or that’s what it sounds like). Wavering voices, barely heard in the distance. Reassuring drums, very full, soft, strong. Hesitant guitar, pitch slightly wavering, outlining lonely chords, uncertain gaps between the notes.

This music is really very beautiful, but only after typing everything you’ve just read (and going back more than once to listen) did that word occur to me. It’s beautiful because of everything else I could describe it as. The beauty comes as a footnote. I wouldn’t listen to this because it’s beautiful. And despite the many times I listened to the beginning, to fix my words, I’m not sure I can stand to hear it soon again. So sad. (Seven and a half minutes.)

Arcade Fire, of all these groups, comes closest to what I think we mean by “beautiful” in classical music. It also strikes me as the most nearly classical in its way of writing music. Meaning here traditionally classical, since Bjork (as I’m hardly the first to say) can sound a lot like new classical music (which shows why she isn’t “beautiful” in any traditional sense). One “beautiful” Arcade Fire song would be “Crown of Love,” possibly because of its harmony, quite classical (or simply old-fashioned) in its push to dominant chords, and then back to the tonic.

Though in the meld of styles that’s the norm in current pop there are background triplets, straight from ‘50s rock, and other not-classical details. And in rock’s rhythmic language, the clump of the bass drum on every downbeat is a rhythmic dissonance. In rock, the clump implicitly (and usually explicitly) falls on the backbeat, so in a complex way the downbeat emphasis jabs at the rhythm, subtly throwing it off.

And then in classical terms, the V of VI chord in first inversion shouldn’t — right in the first stanza of the song, yet —move directly back to I! Illegal! Not allowed! Sounds fine, though, and creates an expectation, later fulfilled, for a “proper” resolution to VI. (This is the kind of harmony that’s natural on the guitar, where you can think of chords as independent units, and don’t have to care about voiceleading, unless you want to.)

Besides, beauty has to be ambiguous in a song with lyrics like these:

They say it fades if you

let it,

love was made to forget it.

I carved your name across my eyelids,

you pray for rain I pray for blindness.

If you still want me, please forgive me,

the crown of love has fallen from me.

If you still want me, please forgive me,

because the spark is not within me.

That tears at you. There’s no rest in beauty like this. (And then we can argue about the old-style drama in the music, big chord progressions, surging vocals, how ironically or absurdly or maybe just appropriately excessive this is.)

Another “beautiful” song, the most purely beautiful I’ve heard in these shuffles, would be “Passenger Seat,” by Death Cab for Cutie. But that might be because for once I’m hearing a straightforward love song:

roll the window down

And then begin to breathe in

The darkest country road

And the strong scent of evergreen

From the passenger seat as you are driving me home.

Then looking upwards

I strain my eyes and try

To tell the difference between shooting stars and satellites

From the passenger seat as you are driving me home.

“do they collide?”

I ask and you smile.

With my feet on the dash

The world doesn’t matter.

When you feel embarrassed then i’ll be your pride

When you need directions then i’ll be the guide

For all time.

For all time

Collisions are distant. Now just the scent of evergreen, and the simple beauty of the music.

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