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The Jungle

The Alienated Man's Guide to Modern Music

On the beat.


When people hear that I am a musicologist, many of them don’t know what that means. So they will play me a song and then ask, “Why do I like this song?” And as the song plays and my ears employ the tools with which my peculiar trade has furnished them, I begin to feel embarrassed about the intimate nature of such a question.

Our musical desires reveal a great deal about us. It is often said that music is the universal language. That might have been true once, but it isn’t anymore. I would say that a sense of alienation is the universal language. What we need, then, is something like a dictionary—or, rather, because our task requires translation across a wide array of dialects, a kind of a musical Rosetta Stone—which allows one to translate music into that common tongue.

The Beat

The only important part of Modern Music. All other parts of the music, including the singing and the lyrics, the melodies and the instrumentals, merely ornament the Beat. These surface-level musical elements (melody, lyrics, chords) stand in relation to the Beat in the same way that the weekend stands in relation to the work week. The aspects of the music, and of your life, that you think you enjoy are nothing more than an escape which makes the return to work (the Beat) desirable and comforting. See also the Drop.

Scarcely ever has a culture been so obsessed with such a specific musical formulation for so long as has ours with the Beat. It is 4/4 or “common time,” with a strict four-bar hypermeasure. It has a non-structural accent on the second and fourth beat (the “high” or “snare”) and a low, throbbing pulse on the first and third beat (the “kick”). In moments of bacchanalian exultation in praise of work, especially at night clubs, the “kick” extends to all four beats (also known as “four on the floor”).

That the Beat is designed for work and work for the Beat is best illustrated by workout classes such as “Xtreme Spin Cycle” or “BodyCombat Invincible.” The entire thing is choreographed to fit the patterns of a pop song. That is only because the pattern of the pop song is a choreography of work. As the music climaxes, the Beat elicits from us our exquisite final ounces of energy, and we feel the pleasure of its total domination over us. Deep down, we are slavishly obsessed with work and we fear, more than anything, quietude and Rest. We are titillated by work’s abuses, and, even when we leave our workplaces, we need to feel it punishing us with its merciless beating. That is, after all, why we call it “working out.”

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John Ahern is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton University.