Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hooks that Snare

There's something humiliating about the way a hook makes you want. I've written here about the cruelty of Britney Spears' "Toxic," a song that gives you the first half of its hook repeatedly, but only offers the implicit second half explicitly once, at the song's center. Kinder songs will generally establish a hook and then provide a series of variations, evolving (at best, evolving with geometrically increasing speed) -- a strategy I suggest to writers as well. But even when one is getting regular doses of hook, it can be terribly infantilizing, the way one feels a constant desire for more, and, at worst, a terrible anxiety: will it happen again? Will it happen again? That thing we love? Will the hook come again? Will it be beautiful the way it was? Will it bring us that same pleasure? Or has the flavor begun to seep from our chewing gum? The hook makes us infantile not only because of the wanting, but because it is so masticatory. That is to say, we suck and chew until the flavor's gone, and then lament the passage of the flavor.

I'm enjoying the new Bright Eyes album The People's Key. This comes to me as a surprise. I remember greatly enjoying one of their very early works, something recorded before they were Bright Eyes in the way I think of that name, that band. Someone else even sang on one or two of the tracks. (No idea anymore what that album was -- I think it was an EP, which is a term I didn't know at 15). There was a long period though where they were synonymous with a sort of whiny confessionalism that didn't really do it for me, or rather which did do it for me but which I also found embarrassing precisely because of how cathartic I found it, and then as I was growing out of that phase they tried to grow out too, but the political angle of their reach for maturity felt somewhat unpersuasive. This latest record seems an effective synthesis, a genuine maturity: the whiny confessionalism has become more measured, no longer feels whiny, while the politics have become more persuasive in their simplicity and (therefore) their appropriateness to what are basically pop songs.

It's taken me a little while to settle into this album, however, because sometimes the hooks and little thrills are getting in my way. The songs generally rely on a familiar, comfortable structure, but with a series of dynamic shifts (some rather subtle, some less so) and twists and small surprises, little snags and snares, which catch the mind and ear, and thrill, and then depart. There's a moment in the climax of "Shell Games," one of the more immediately pleasing songs, where the guitars go all squealingly anthemic and stadium-rock-ready and Oberst sings "Everyone, on the count of three!" and suddenly there's a small crowd behind him, saying "three!" with him. This happens once more and then never again. It feels so good that on hearing it you immediately want to hear it again. Or at least I did. But nothing in the whole album is quite the same. There are many other, similar moments but nothing quite like that. And often, in any given song, there is another thing like this, a rare twist that never quite recurs, or several. Say the sudden pounding at the height of "Jejune Stars," which lasts for maybe 2.5 seconds. And on hearing it you want to hear it again.

For the first several listens I was letting these moments screw up the album. Instead of paying attention consistently I would tune in periodically, as to my Facebook feed, hoping for something surprising and beautiful to happen exactly whenever I happened to glance in its direction. I was waiting for the hooks. In "Haile Selassie," I was waiting for the rare climbing synthy purple shiny little flare of guitar and ignoring everything around it. This is not a good way to appreciate music.

I do the same thing with a lot of art, I think. I loved the show Battlestar Galactica but there were certain gestures the show would make sometimes that I enjoyed so much that whenever it wasn't making those gestures I would find myself often dissatisfied, in an ugly sort of way, chewing the show half-heartedly, trying to extract some of the flavor I preferred to its status quo flavor. There are gestures so beautiful they need a lot of preparation. Sometimes I would like to do without the preparation. Sometimes this is laziness on my part. Sometimes an art loses its way and forgets its own pleasures, forgets its own beauty. But I resent myself, quite often, for failing to be receptive as I should be, for only wanting the exceptions, for my contempt for any given artwork's status quo.

Often, when I hit the point where this impatience becomes overwhelming, I can solve it by taking up a new interest. I buy a different genre of music, investigate new writers, and so on. So partly this is a normal need for novelty. But partly it makes me feel like one of the characters in Infinite Jest who's seen the tape, who can no longer settle for anything less than perfect pleasure. Incontinent, speechless, only wanting. The hook is powerful. The hook is embarrassing. Art fails if it can't ensnare, and yet, in being snared, we are often embarrassed. The shame we often feel in pop music is the shame we feel in our bodies, in hunger, in digestion.

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