Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Movies vs. music

There's a blogger I follow, whom I think I would follow a lot more if it weren't for one thing:

He/she (I know the gender, I'm just being purposely vague) blogs about music in addition to movies.

This is a perfectly valid creative choice for a blog, and I support it in the abstract. But when it gets down to the particular, I don't read his/her blog as much simply because I'm not that interested in sifting through the music posts.

I've been thinking about why this is. It's not because I don't like music. On the contrary -- music always has been and always will be an essential part of my life, even if I listen to more public radio and less music as I grow older. And what would films be without music? Music and movies inform each other intimately. We say that a particular song seems very "cinematic," either because it's grandiose or seems to tell some kind of story; likewise, we refer to films as "lyrical."

It stands to reason that a blog that combines both could be quite a brilliant read. And I'm not saying this blog is not. However, I wouldn't really know, because I don't give the music articles a chance -- I don't even read them in the first place.

Again, I've been thinking about why this is.

And it basically comes down to this: Movies are universal, while music can be very, very subjective.

Let's put it another way. I feel like I could recommend a great movie to anyone who likes movies. Great music? No way. Because my great music could be their crap. Where I hear brilliance, they may just hear noise. And we're listening to the same piece, it's just we're not fans of the same kind of music.

To be sure, movies can have the same kind of subjectivity. One person's brilliance can be another person's crap. I could show you the best western in the world (Unforgiven, for the record), and you might not like it because you don't like westerns. Actually, that's a bad example, because I love Unforgiven even though I don't particularly like the western genre.

But that's kind of my point exactly. Unforgiven speaks to me because I love film, not because I love westerns, and I think it would do the same for most people. I don't have to like that particular genre to like the film.

You can't say the same thing with music -- maybe even with books, or TV, or any other kind of creative endeavor, though I'd have to think about each of those individually before I could say for sure. The best hip hop song that has ever been recorded might sound like insolent fluff to a fan of classical music. Similarly, a hip hop fan may listen to a symphony and be utterly unable to distinguish it as something worthy of his/her time.

And what this leads me to decide is that films have an absolute value that music does not. Very few people will look at the world's greatest films and decide that they aren't at least somewhat good. Whereas, if you don't like U2, you don't like U2, and that's that.

It's for this reason that I have never been interested in the Grammys, the way I'm interested in the Oscars. Sure, some of that has to do with the fact that I'm educated about film and can both write and speak about it intelligently, whereas I'd be speaking in generalities if I tried to write about music on a regular basis. Simply put, I'm more passionate, per se, about movies than I am about music.

But I also have trouble with the Grammys because I feel like they're always comparing apples to oranges, and rarely do the winners have a true hold on the musical zeitgeist, because different people have such different tastes in music. (So, by extension, there may be no true musical zeitgeist.)

I think of the year that Steely Dan won Album of the Year for a record called Two Against Nature. It was 2001, and I didn't know a single person who had heard a single note off that album. But the rest of the nominees were pretty much a grab bag from across the musical spectrum as well: Midnite Vultures by Beck, Kid A by Radiohead, The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem and You're the One by Paul Simon. You might argue that Steely Dan should be the least likely to walk away with that award, given the musical temperature of the country at that time (though I don't know a word from the Paul Simon album either). If any album "should" have won in terms of its influence on culture, it would be Eminem's album. But there you have an example of an album that would polarize as many people as it would convert.

Not so, really, with the movies. When Slumdog Millionaire wins best picture, it's because that's the movie everyone's talking about. When The Hurt Locker wins best picture, it's because that's the movie everyone's talking about. Those two movies are very different from each other, but the same people can love them equally.

That could just be because movie buzz gets very loud, very quickly. And since that buzz is controlled by a relatively small number of entertainment outlets, it tends to coronate frontrunners pretty quickly, and get us all thinking on the same page. Or it could just be because movies are a smaller universe than music, where it's not apples vs. oranges, but Granny Smith apples vs. Golden Delicious. And where opinions of greatness -- or lack of greatness -- translate better from person to person.

And so to this blogger, who may have determined his or her identity in the course of this piece, but who is really only being used as an example who inspired me to a certain line of thinking: Your decision to combine music and movies on your blog does not work for me as well as it should, for the above reasons. It's hard to read a music recommendation the same way I read a movie recommendation. With music, I need to know where you're coming from; with movies, I don't.

But more power to you for trying. Music and movies do inform each other in more ways than we can even touch on here, and as I said, it's a good idea for a blog if you can pull it off. And I think you can.

I'm just not always going to be your most regular reader, because I like to keep my apples and my oranges separate.


Chris said...

I understand what your saying, I'm guessing this was about my blog ( :

Like I explain on my LAMB profile, the music is a bonus. And if you want to know where I'm coming from, then I've listed the music genres I enjoy on my profile. I'm not going to spill my guts about what each individual songs means to me, I'm not sure people would be interested anyway, as they experience the songs in their own personal ways.

I look at it that I have a number of songs I'd like others to discover, because I enjoyed discovering them myself. Then why not share them is my train of thought. I realize some will not like them, because as you say music is so subjective. I'm looking for happy accidents to happen, bloggers finding some songs they hadn't planned on finding.
Don't worry, I'm not offended by your article ( : If you don't want music+movies mixed, then fair enough. For me it spices up a movie blog to add music. Hats off for your honesty.

Derek Armstrong said...


You got me. :-)

But actually, really, all I wanted to do was use you as a "news peg" -- that's what we called it in my journalism days, a contemporary news event that serves as an entry point to discussing a larger trend -- for my post. The subject I cared about most in my post was the difference between the way we collectively experience movies and the way we collectively experience music, since in many other ways, they are considered to be sort of equivalent artistic passions.

What got me thinking about it was that I often read your blog but don't comment, either because a) I have not seen the movie you happen to be talking about, or b) it's a music post. It was the second part that stirred my creative juices today.

Thanks for not being offended -- I wanted to talk about a general idea using a specific example, and I tried to hide your identity as much as possible. Glad to know you didn't think I was making a negative comment about your blog in particular, but just using it as an example of a phenomenon I wanted to discuss.

Keep mixing! I love those happy accidents you speak of, and will hope to gain some as a result of being one of your readers.

Burning Reels said...

I'm also guilty of this one and I agree, music is much more subjective/specific to one's tastes but then you have to be true to yourself.

Despite the obvious similarites of being able to express the universal themes of love, death and politics, the difference in the manner we are able to intake music, cinema, TV, books, art is a very interesting subject.

Derek Armstrong said...

Agreed, BR. And I'm sure some people would argue that books and TV are superior forms of storytelling to movies, because you get to live with the characters and grow with them over the course of, in some cases, many years. Thank goodness there's a place for everything in popular culture, and we don't have to choose!

Chris David Richards said...

Good point. Music definitely isn't universal for me. I like what I like and can sometimes find no merit in the most 'critically acclaimed' stuff. It's about genres, and some of them do nothing for me.

Derek Armstrong said...

Which may make music fascinating in different ways, but still means it's easier to talk about film with anybody, without worrying about whether you'll find common ground. Thanks for the comment, Chris!

Unknown said...

I realise this is really friggin old, but I think that you are subscribing to a sort of (err not so knowledgable?/narrow minded) view (No offence intended), when you say you can recommend a good film to anyone and then be nearly sure that they'll love it and see what is good about it, I think you are restricting this idea of 'anyone' to just film aficionados and elitists. There are about a million people who disliked Hurt Locker or say found King's Speech boring, these are the kind of guys who'd consider cheesy films like G.I Joe Rise of the Cobra or something to be the best, And they are actually in the majority. But just like film aficionados there are music aficionados, for example nearly anyone who listens to music loves the Beatles, there can be people who just love the idea of music in general and not just genres, for example there are many people who love John Coltrane and Led Zeppelin. Similarly for as many people there are that like Woody Allen films and Scorsese's films; there are an equal number of people who wouldn't be able to take the talking in WA films or the violence in Scorsese films. And I think you've also pretty much neglected most films that come out from OUTSIDE of Hollywood. They are VERY different. I doubt your average American film lover would love him some Jean-Luc Godard or Ingmar Bergman. So there is subjectivity in both.

Derek Armstrong said...

Excellent points all, Skwisgaar, and I thank you for stopping in to make them. (No worry about the age of the post, either -- I'm thrilled that my old posts are still attracting attention.)

Reviewing what I've written with the perspective of three years, I think the real difference may come down to the number of available genres. Movies have, what, 20 main genres or so, with everything else being kind of a subgenre of that? I wouldn't even know how many genres music can be broken down into -- though there are websites that do that. I would guess you could come up with at least a hundred distinct genres that have core differences from each other that allow them to be defined as a separate genre. Some of those genres just don't communicate with one another at all.

I think in both movies and music, your average reasonable person can make a determination that something is good, even if it's not for them. So perhaps it's not really the difference between "good" and "bad," but between "my taste" and "not my taste."

Thanks again for the comment!

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