Song of the Week: Bon Iver, “Calgary”

I want to set a scene, and then I want to ask a question.

Song of the Week: Bon Iver, “Calgary

Here’s the scene: you like Bon Iver’s “Calgary.”  In fact, you track it down when it’s released, give it a listen, give it another ten listens, and then buy it.  You like it enough that you add it to your iTunes library and your iPhone’s library.  You play it frequently on both, and you put it on different playlists, and it comes up regularly on shuffle.

You like this song.

Now, you have friends over.  Say you’re a person of the world and your friends are diverse; it’s a motley crew.  Your computer’s providing background music for this de facto party.  Everyone’s in the same room and is enjoying the party music rocking from your iTunes.  Laughter and snacks abound.  Frivolity!  Friends!  Huzzah!  And, at the height of the festivities, Bon Iver’s “Calgary” comes on shuffle.  Full blast.  And for the same reason computers freeze as husbands are looking at porn and their wives are approaching the room, the song can’t be paused or skipped, only endured for its entirety.

My question: in that moment, are you embarrassed?  And if so, why?

Here’s something my friends (in real life now) might tell you: I’m hard to embarrass. I’m hard to embarrass because I love to laugh, I love to laugh at myself, and I think I’m ridiculous.  When it comes to matters of taste (e.g. art, entertainment, other things people insist are solely subjective), I’m even harder to embarrass.  Music is something I’ve always created, loved, invested in, and thought about.  Jazz snobs and teeny boppers alike don’t phase me.  I know what I know and I know what I like and I love what I love.

But I can tell you without equivocation: in the scenario above, I am embarrassed.  I’m deeply embarrassed, and I’m not sure why.

You might say: “Chris, it’s a party, and that’s not party music.  The same record-scratching moment would happen if any slow, somber song interrupted the festivities.”  And that’s probably true, but that moment wouldn’t embarrass me.  I would simply experience the non-party song with everyone else in a non-party way.  For example, if Pearl Jam’s “Nothingman” interrupted the party, I’d think to myself, “God, I love that song….Pearl Jam!…Huzzah!…I wonder if anyone here somehow hasn’t heard this song…I should burn it for them….where’s the cheese dip…”  And so on.

Music has a representative quality: we often let it speak for us, because it can say so much with a few notes and a few words.  There’s the music I love because I’m comfortable letting it speak for me.  There’s also the music I enjoy because I’m comfortable with how little it speaks for me.  In that way, I’m equally comfortable playing Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Ginuwine’s, “My Pony” for mixed company.  One I relate to deeply, and one I don’t relate to at all.  Serious connection versus casual fun; total intimacy versus distance.  Whether we mean to or not, we self-identify through music.  I’m the type of person who loves Bob Dylan and casually enjoys Ginuwine.  Under these definitions, “guilty pleasure” doesn’t apply, because I don’t feel guilty either group.  I know what I get out of the songs I deeply relate to (and love) and those I don’t relate to (and love anyway).  One pleasure is deeper and more rewarding than the other, but neither is guilty.

But every now and then, a song occupies a rare middle-ground: I relate to it while recognizing I’m not “the type of person who usually relates to it.”  This might explain the party embarrassment.  Everyone at the party knows I’m a Dylan fan, and everyone at the party knows I’m not a Ginuwine fan.  If they don’t, they can rapidly infer it.  But Bon Iver makes serious, thoughtful, often gorgeous music that (for whatever reason) I don’t typically relate to.  By accidentally blasting “Calgary,” I’d worry about misrepresentation.

During a party, there’s no quick way to explain why this song resonates and the others don’t.  There’s no three-minute explanation for how this song is the center of the Venn Diagram between “Things That Sound Kind of Like Enya,” “Things That Chris Loves To Hear.”  There’s no easy answer for why this song does to me what great pop songs should do: bring in someone new.

“Guys,” I’d protest, “I’m not one of those.”

Only I would be.  And I am.

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Song of the Week: Bon Iver, “Calgary”

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