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The Jungle

The Alienated Man's Guide to Modern Music

On the beat.

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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.”

Violins

A way of making a song into a soundtrack, such that the listener feels he is the plucky hero of his own biopic. Unlike Brass, Violins communicate pathos and the interiority of the hero. In certain Genres, such as disco, they lend an operatic flair to the lead singer, to whom we relate as listeners. Our struggles become epic and cosmic (see Reverb). Violins transform a song into the non-diegetic film score to which you and only you, the main character, are privy.

Examples:

“Viva La Vida,” Coldplay

“Never Gonna Not Dance Again,” P!nk

Brass

A coronation of the listener as the hero of his private listening experience. Listening to music, for the alienated modern, is the perpetuation of a fantasy of a life with friendship, adventure, romance, and even heroism. The use of Brass instruments, such as trumpets, trombones, and horns, is martial and fitting to the hero of one’s fantasy, which is one’s self. Thus we like songs with Brass when we are strutting along or attempting to summon confidence. See also Violins.

Examples:

“Y.M.C.A.,” Village People

“Special (feat. SZA),” Lizzo

Reverb

Artificial reverberation added to the tracks of the song to create the sense of a large space. Music that lacks Reverb, as in shellac or early vinyl records, strikes us as odd. It was originally introduced for recordings of Classical Music to replicate the sense of a concert hall. It is now ubiquitous in Modern Music, although its exact parameters range widely and communicate different things.

The impression of a large space is a beautiful ambiguity, for it is both communal and alienating at once. It makes the music feel like a concert in your ears, but you are the only person at the concert. It makes the music feel classical or religious, set in a concert hall or cathedral, yet your surroundings are a bus stop or cubicle. Nothing is so effective in making your problems feel as if they are cosmic in significance. Sung in the mouth of your favorite singers, your personal battles reverberate endlessly.

Thus, when Sufjan Stevens sings some intimate details about his mother, who was a terrible woman, in “Should Have Known Better,” he uses no Reverb at first. We feel awkward, as if we are overhearing personal information we shouldn’t. Then, partway through, he kicks in the Reverb, and we are comforted with a sense that this is not only Sufjan’s problem—this is humanity’s problem. Of course, when we look around us, we discover that, like Sufjan’s mother, humanity is nowhere to be seen.

Other examples:

“Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2

The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

The Mic

The instrument by which a sense of intimacy is simulated in Modern Music. The vocal Mic, in particular, creates the impression that the singer is with you, next to you, close enough to touch you. Thus the actual amplitude of Adele’s voice at the beginning of “Hello” and at its climax is, more or less, the same. Yet she sounds, at the beginning, as if she is whispering intimately in your ear and at the end like she is shouting. This childish simulacrum of reality corresponds to you and your social life: thinly veiled versions of intimacy, mediated through technology but involving no actual breath or human touch. The Mic is, in short, the serenade at the window of the incel.

Another example:

“Halo,” Beyoncé

The Clap

An audio track of people clapping along with a song, within a song. Usually on the second and fourth beat of a measure.

The Clap is alienation par excellence. It is designed to make the music feel communal and folksy at precisely that moment when it is least so. Its conceit is that you are in a live performance with an audience. “There is a friendly group of compadres around you, enjoying this music with you,” whispers the music to you gently—but you have neither friends nor compadres, and if you did they probably would not like your taste in music.

Examples:

“I’ll Be There for You — Theme From ‘Friends,’” The Rembrandts

“Happy,” Pharrell Williams

The Drop

A temporary deprivation of the Beat, carefully coordinated with hypermeasure such that the re-introduction of the Beat can be intuitively predicted by listeners. Usually at the end of four hypermeasures, the last measure or pair of measures is in stop-time. Since this is the weakest of all structural positions in the entire song, the tension and expectation are at their greatest. The Drop is the moment when bass and drums, the Beat, re-enter and bacchanalia resumes with greater force.

Leibniz says that “music is an occult practice of arithmetic, in which the mind is unaware that it is counting.” He might just as well have been talking about people at a club experiencing the Drop. They know it is coming, owing to the slowly rising pitch or the ever-smaller subdivisions of the Beat from the snare or a sudden Low-Pass Filter, and they can even sense vaguely when it will arrive, because they are, without knowing it, counting hypermeasures. Please note, if you want to ensure that your alienation is functioning properly: so long as you enjoy music only through your appetites and never through your intellect, you will be sure to live in an occult, psychedelic haze of forces bending your will. These kinds of musical mechanisms certify that your active and liberal participation in real life is permanently foreclosed.

So terrifying is the prospect of quietude and Rest to the alienated modern that its temporary intrusion into the fabric of the music acts like a jump-scare in a thriller. It jolts the senses and delights the audience. The Beat, during the Drop, becomes like the comforting embrace of a father after it throws the listener, like a child, into the air, threatening a fall into sabbath but, at the last moment, saving the listener from that unbearable fate.

Examples:

“One Kiss (with Dua Lipa),” Calvin Harris

“Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” Justin Timberlake

The Fadeout

Occluding the end of the Beat by fading a song out. The idea that the Beat would ever come to an end is hideous and ugly to an alienated modern. All Rest must be censored. But since every consumer experience must come to an end—so as to lead to further consumption and, thus, further work—the music, too, must end. The Fadeout is the clever conceit that the Beat continues endlessly but is merely in a different place, moving away from the listener and out of earshot. This is tragic and unbearable. The listener must, as soon as possible, listen to another song, re-asserting the dominance of the Beat.

Examples:

“Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones

“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Merle Haggard

Chorus

The Chorus is not so different from its Attic tragic counterpart. It is often a banal expression, devoid of context, but applicable to a wide variety of situations. Unlike Aeschylus’s chorus, however, Modern Music’s Chorus is a jingle designed perfectly to relate to a certain market sector.

Thus, for overweight people, it is comforting to hear Meghan Trainor sing, “If I was you, I’d wanna be me too,” and for teenage girls who wish that they lived in a world where neighbors knew each other, it is comforting to fantasize about singing “You belong with me” to boys across the street. In this sense, the Chorus of a song and the jingle of an ad are one and the same. But you have less control and more alienation in the case of a Chorus, since you’re unaware that a song is an ad and unaware of what goods and services you are implicitly purchasing in listening to it.

As the song progresses, the Chorus is repeated, each time with more imaginary singers. This gives the impression of a community of music makers, which increases the listener’s sense of isolation, making him more vulnerable to the implicit sales pitch. (See The Clap.) It serves an important economic function as well, since it is likely the part of the song that will get stuck in your head and eventually bring you back, thus increasing the ad revenues and royalties of the musical supply chain.

Other examples:

“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” Kelly Clarkson

“We Will Rock You,” Queen

Verse

The part of a song where the producer’s target market demographic is gradually revealed. This is usually done through a story or a stock of stereotyped circumlocutions (“I threw a wish in the well, don’t ask me, I’ll never tell,” etc.). Verses alternate with iterations of the Chorus, with which it works in conjunction. The whole song, by the beginning of the second Chorus, flowers into a perfect advertisement directed at the song’s demographic.

Examples:

“Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen

“Runaway (feat. Pusha T),” Kanye West

Ducking

Using the sound board or mixer to create the impression that the singer is always louder than the backup music, no matter what the backup music does. As alienated moderns, we do not, on the whole, shout or have loud emotions, but we rather choose to enjoy others shouting or screaming or having loud emotions in music (see the Mic). But even that is unreal. In Modern Music, the shouting is a simulation. No human voice, even at the top of its lungs, could overpower drums, electric guitars, whole bands and whole orchestras. No human voice, that is, could ever overpower the Beat. Ducking ensures that the dominance of the Beat is felt but never consciously noticed.

Low-pass and high-pass filters

On a mixing board or digital-audio workstation, the removal of low or high frequencies for the creation of some effect. The effect, often used at the beginning of songs, creates the impression of hearing music from outside a room or listening to something old on vinyl. Both of these are crucial for the alienated modern: you are just outside the place where real community is happening; alternatively, you have just missed the time when it existed. The music wistfully suggests this and tantalizes you with the possibility, “Here! Here is the door in!”

Examples:

“Water Baby,” Tom Misch

“Lavender Haze,” Taylor Swift

Sampling

Recycling older material, both musical and non-musical, in a new song. There are multiple meanings to this practice. On the one hand, alienated people look to past culture as a source of community, but the market of consumable goods is so diverse that it is nearly impossible to find people who enjoy the same old things you enjoy. When we deprive ourselves of a “canon,” we deprive ourselves of the community that canon formed, and thus we are further alienated. Sampling is the creation of canonicity. It is bestowing on something older a certain normative status.

On the other hand, sampling is also a fear of single-use plastic. Music is very like single-use plastic, and our brains are very like oceans. Sampling relieves us of the guilt we feel over our musical consumption, since we are using the “plastic” not once but twice.

Examples:

“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy

“Violets,” Miles Davis and Robert Glasper feat. Phonte

Genre

A misnomer. In reality, what are commonly called “genres” are species, not genuses. All Genres are in fact within a single genus, Modern Music, including Classical Music.

Modern music

Music best experienced through headphones, optimized for hearing the Beat. Note: Modern Music is not music which tends to exist thanks to certain technologies—recording studios, mixing boards and headphones—rather these technologies constitute the music entirely. They make it what it is.

Classical music

A genre of Modern Music engineered for a market sector of especially alienated moderns. So acute is their sense of alienation that this market sector will pay to have others simulate pre-modern music and will then listen to it as one would any other kind of Modern Music. The fact that this is more desirable than themselves doing and performing the pre-modern music is a sure indication that those who listen to Classical Music are the most modern and most alienated of all.

Thus the man who gets home from church, dissatisfied, and turns on a bit of Palestrina or King’s College’s “Best Loved Hymns” or who hungers for his vinyl of Klemperer while he sits listening to the live performance of his mediocre community orchestra—he is doubly alienated. He is swung up and down, up and down, pitilessly, between the kick of disappointing reality and the snare of an evaporated past. Though he cannot hear it in the dulcet strains of Beethoven or Bach, he is in the vise grip of the Beat.

Rest

A disgusting aberration, a blasphemy of both music and life. As with all such aberrations, it has several names: leisure, polyphony, sabbath. It is the negation and denial of the Beat, a declaration that work is not ultimate. Thankfully, however, there are useful substitutes for Rest. There is Classical music. There is the simulacrum of “atmospheric” or “ambient” music, which temporarily removes the Beat, but only so that we can return to the Beat refreshed and dedicate ourselves anew to it (see also the Drop).

But true Rest is what must be avoided at all costs. You can detect the warning signs easily: the subjugation of the Beat to harmony and the ordering of work toward rest. This may even lead you to creating music yourself, without recourse to any vicariousness. You may even begin to do it in community with others. The music that grows from such Rest and leads to such Rest is dangerous to the alienated man. It will upset his life and livelihood, his and those around him. He should avoid it at all costs.

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