Big Science by Laurie Anderson was the first tape I ever bought. I was eight when my poetry mentor Janet played me the opening track “From the Air,” whose lyrics narrate a plane’s crash landing, mixing leftfield oddities like “I’ve seen this all before; why? Because I’m a caveman” with portentous doomsaying: “Jump out of the plane. There is no pilot. You are not alone.”
With a third-grade education, I couldn’t tell you much back then about the song’s textual treatment of authority or its elusive, displaced rhythms, but knew this much: all my weirdling suspicions that chaos and bewilderment could transform us had been confirmed. It’s why as a teenager I heard Throbbing Gristle and They Might Be Giants as two sides of the same coin, both playing terror and mischief around the edges of everything we think we know, but don’t.
People in the pop world tend to assume assume that musicians should portray experiences that are relatable to audiences, and I’ve given lip service to that in the songwriting courses I’ve taught at NYU and elsewhere. But if you widen your scope a little, it might be that pop’s potential powers also include opening up whole new ways of perceiving the world, laced with ambiguity, shock, and discomfort—and musicians don’t have to sacrifice a good beat and a tight lyric in doing this.
As individuals and as a culture, though, when we only listen to music we readily understand, we just retread the territory of who we are, instead of expanding it. And maybe it’s unkind and pretentious to make pop that tries to throw listeners off balance, but do you really want to live in a world where nobody’s even trying?
That was the first urge I ever felt in music making, and it’s one I still feel.
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