by Noura Hemady on August 6, 2012

Mid-argument about the quality of Kings of Leon’s latest offerings, my friend challenged me to explain why I did or did not like a piece of music. How can you accurately and compellingly describe an experience as visceral as music? At its core, music is physics; is it possible to describe why I find this combination of pitches and frequencies more pleasurable than the next? But my reasoning had little to do with notes, instruments, sound waves, or rhythms. I embraced the challenge and spouted a litany of moments outlining my preferences.

Songs that evoke muggy nights on porches, listening to cicadas and sirens in the distance: these songs were found before 2009, when I moved to the city, where there are no nighttime cicadas but only muted sirens and drunks chatting in the alley.

Songs that can only be enjoyed on a ride home from the beach, heading west into the sunset, driver and passengers crooning off-key: playing “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” five times in a row — but only the first 30 seconds, so that you can practice coming in at the exact moment that Otis does.

Songs that bring contagious grins and shameless arm-flailing on the dance floor: the Wombats’ “Let’s Dance to Joy Division,” because the beat cajoles you to jump up and down. The song is about wanting to dance into oblivion, so there’s no need to maintain composure.

Kings of Leon’s first two albums, Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, made me want to drink whiskey and smoke in a biker bar in Louisiana with a James Dean character and several thorny-looking, yet innocuous, leather bikers. Every album that followed made me think of Best Buy, supermarket stereos, and girls in American Eagle cut-offs capped by florescent Ray-Ban knockoffs.

As I explained my tastes, I wondered if I was truly outlining my artistic predilections, or just elaborating an intricate web of memories in which certain movies, foods, pictures, and most importantly, songs have been ensnared. It became increasingly apparent that my tastes could not be eloquently detailed without relying heavily on memory. I realized I was losing at my own rebuttal, but I kept arguing, regardless.

Take the song “Home,” by LCD Soundsystem. It’s a great song. You can dance to it, you can sing to it, and you can play it while working and be totally unfazed by it. The song begins with a minute and a half of keyboards and synthesizers, no vocals, and builds into James Murphy pleading, “Home, take me home.” Do I love this song because of the inherent quality of the music? No — but it’s catchy, and that’s why I initially gave it a second, third, and fourth listen.

When this song plays, I have no intelligent thoughts. I’m consumed by the memories it evokes. It transports me to all the places I’ve seen LCD Soundsystem: Merriweather Post Pavilion, where I worked up the nerve to sneak down into the pit, 20 feet from James Murphy, even though I only had lawn seats. Charlottesville, Virginia, and the winding drive through horse fields ringed by white picket fences and anchored by faux-colonial McMansions, the mountains, some 15 miles off, glowing orange in the sunset. Madison Square Garden, during their last performance ever, three and a half hours into the show and all ten thousand people gathered there swaying and singing along, acutely aware of the dwindling number of songs left to play before the band became extinct. I was young; I could do anything I wanted. I was totally in control. I was totally lacking control. I could drive to Charlottesville or New York on a whim to see a band that I loved, and who was going to stop me from wandering the streets in an unfamiliar city, stumbling home from sheer exhaustion at four thirty in the morning? No one.

Music is very different from other forms of art. Movies have their own plots into which you are absorbed; seldom do I find myself transposing my own stories onto a film. Art is much more costly to possess; unless you are a millionaire, you’re probably not home staring at an original Monet, lost in its cacophony of colors, for hours on end. There are museums for that. But music, in recorded form, is portable and inexpensive, accessible from your home, car, work — or you can just start singing and banging on some table and create your own. I recently got stuck outdoors in an historic thunderstorm. In the bus shelter where we took refuge, over the howling winds and pouring rain, there was music — we sang Sublime’s “Wrong Way” and “What I Got” for 20 minutes while we waited for the storm to subside.

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Noura Hemady is a Washington, DC-based writer who should have more opinions on international development, but really just wants to talk about music, bikes, and DC culture.


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