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Published:January 6th, 2007 06:30 EST
The Music Moves Me

The Music Moves Me

By Julia Bottles

I am a dancer.  A swing dancer.  I thrive on rhythm and melody.  But the music that I dance to, primarily Big Band swing from the 1930s is more than just an arrangement of notes in measures.  All of these elements guide me around the dance floor, and when I hear music I can relate to my dancing becomes as individual as I am.  These songs contain in them feeling, a sort of soul if you will, that touches on a variety of human experiences.  Billie Holiday sang of heart-wrenching sorrow and Ella Fitzgerald could conjure up memories of sheer joy with a few short bars.  That is the music that touches me.

Despite my love of swing music, I am a strong believer in the saying “variety is the spice of life.”  As a dancer, I become restless if I spend all of my time dealing with the same type of music, so I enjoy mixing genres.  The salsa sizzles when Ibrahim Ferrerr sings “Que Bueno Balla Usted,” the rawness of Nina Simone evokes smoky blues clubs, and nothing can match the smooth hip-hop beats of “Fire” by Des’ree.  In all of these pieces something intangible moves me as a dancer.

The music I am passionate about ranges in time period from the height of Jazz to the golden age of hip-hop; age does not seem to be a factor in my musical selections.  Therefore I must force myself to ask, why does so little popular music today grab me in the same way? 

I have no objection to contemporary pop or hip-hop, yet I continually find myself uninspired by the offerings of many pop stars.  Ironically enough, these songs are marketed to appeal specifically to my demographic.  Part of the problem is that music and dance are completely interconnected for me.  It is not that I am unable to dance to Fergie’s “Fergilicious.”  Sure, the constantly thumping beat and addictive hook make it easy for me to find my way through the song even—believe it or not—when swing dancing.  The fundamental problem lies instead in one simple fact: I just do not care about the music.

For me, there are two elements that a song must possess to draw in the listener: content and frankness.  Content is the easier of the two to describe.  The song has to be about something that I can relate to, even if the relationship between my life and the lyrics is abstract.  Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall both lament their love-lives in “Love Me Like a Man.”  Maybe I have not lived the exact experiences of Raitt, Krall, or songwriter Chris Smither but something in the piece strikes a cord in me.  It speaks to a moment in my life that has relevance.  Current pop music more often than not fails for me on that front.  Shockingly, I find it difficult to muster solidarity with Gwen Stefani’s 2005 mega hit “Hollaback Girl.”  That and I am always left with the question, “why bananas?”

The second element that makes music click for me is, for lack of a better word, certain frankness in tone.  There must be something in the song beyond the content that makes it personal to both the artist and the listener.  Musicians and singers as wide-ranging as Lou Rawls, Louis Armstrong, and Janice Joplin had that je ne sait quoi.  Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Yo-Yo Ma still possess it.  These artists are able to bare their souls in a profoundly personal way.  This frankness is what links them to their audiences, making each and every performance believable.  

I do not want to begin down the tempting path of naiveté so I will state clearly that I fully understand that the music industry, as a business, is first and foremost concerned with turning a profit.  It would be useless to wax nostalgic about how years ago the industry used to be different; that is too dangerous an assertion to make because it distances us from the past.  One cannot deny, however, that song making has changed.  The extreme dependence upon studio production has molded contemporary pop music as we know it.  The majority of songs released as Top 40 hits are highly manufactured and studio driven.  Repetitive drum beats and over-produced vocals leave many of these songs sounding impersonal and dry.  The soul is missing from most contemporary pop songs.

I am not saying that all pop music is stale and distant, but a discerning listener will soon realize that the majority is.  Pop music has lost some of the connection to the listener that it once possessed.  Music, more than any other form of art, has the ability to inexplicably affect its listener.  Unfortunately, contemporary pop often fails to provide a provocative connection to its audience.  It is easy to see why I find myself over and over again reverting to familiar classics and the few new masterpieces I stumble across.  Quite simply, this is the music that moves me.