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I Should Watch TV

Feeling emo with UW ethnomusicology professor Shannon Dudley and “To Be Kind”

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Editor’s note: “I Should Watch TV” is a weekly column, inspired by David Byrne and St. Vincent’s song of the same name, that focuses on mental health awareness, representation, and understanding the world through the media we consume.

Last week, I dove headfirst into understanding the identity aspects of music and the communities that can form as a result. In the article, I briefly touched on the crucial role of emotion — for this week’s piece, I want to centralize that idea. 

Emotion is a fascinating element within every piece of media we consume, whether we like it or not. Every genre, in a sense, contains its respective emotions, which can be obvious or merely implied to us as observers.

Action films are meant to engage and excite audiences with massive explosions, dramatic fight scenes, and overbearing sound effects. On the flip side, drama films hold the audience emotionally hostage, twisting and pulling at our heartstrings, hoping to move viewers to tears with an understanding of one of life’s many motifs.

The same can be said for different genres of music, but to a larger extent. Music genres, unlike film, can occupy many different spaces at once and provide a multitude of emotions in one sitting. Our own personal experiences or upbringing can also play a major role in how we emotionally respond to music, whether it’s a new discovery or our favorite song.

“The associations that we have with songs and the context in which we hear them, and the associations that we make because of our experience, often have a lot to do with how [songs] affect us,” UW ethnomusicology professor Shannon Dudley said.

Dudley is an ethnomusicologist and studies the ways in which nature and nurture affect our responses to music, as well as the various cultural differences of music.

“If you had a song that was playing when you met your girlfriend or boyfriend and it was just a magical night, you'll remember that song and it'll remind you of that; and if you broke up, consequently, with that girlfriend or boyfriend, then that song might make you really sad,” Dudley said.

This extends to almost any piece of music. Dudley and I discussed how songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while controversial, are imbued with meaning because of the context we have repeatedly heard them in. While context is definitely important, Dudley argued that the artist’s ability to properly convey emotions is also crucial.

“If they're good artists, I think they tend to succeed in [getting] across how they're feeling and strike a chord,” Dudley said. “There is an understanding and empathy ... there's something about that song that touches you and helps you relate to that singer's emotion.”

These points are obvious to me as an avid music consumer. One of my favorite albums is Swans’ “To Be Kind,” a post-rock, experimental masterpiece. I adore it because it excels at both moving me and providing me with an emotional gut-punch, which I think is necessary every now and then.

On a surface level, the album is fairly simplistic. The lyrics are not complex, nor particularly comprehensible, and the sound, while occasionally abrasive, is pretty straightforward rock. That being said, the overall length and composition of each track, paired with Michael Gira’s off-kilter vocal timbre and delivery — prominent on songs like “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” and “She Loves Us” — puts listeners on an emotional rollercoaster. 

For example, “She Loves Us” is a 17-minute, hypnotic journey through your mind. While the lyrics discuss fake love and meaningless sex, the emotional response you have to the track is personal and unique and can lead you to a completely different meaning than someone else. You may hate it or love it, or maybe you’ll just space out and let the rollercoaster take its ups and downs.

In short, the album thrives on what lies on the surface. Digging deeper into the meaning of each track may help you understand Gira’s intentions, but in a way, that seems like a sacrilege. Take and embrace the odd experience, and don’t think too much about what lies underneath.

This music, however strange it may seem, is healing. Dudley agreed that, while your taste might not be for everyone, it could be exactly what you need.

“You know, people’s parents are afraid because their kids are listening to death metal, or something like that,” Dudley said. “They can only understand it as something depressing, but maybe the kid is finding that it's a good way to process some difficult emotions.”

The emotions music elicits are elusive yet universal, and we should embrace them to the fullest extent. While they may not fully heal you, they can boost your mindset and remind you that someone else might be going through a similar situation. If not, they may provide you with an emotional break that proves necessary in this day and age. So max out the volume on your AirPods and jam out to your favorite track, whether it be Swans, Charli XCX, Taylor Swift, or your top niche artist. Whatever it is, I know it will be worth it.

Reach columnist Jacob Renn at Twitter: @jakemrenn

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