In a world overflowing with Spotify streams and online leaks, where we can count on free listening as much as we count on Boston College to replace the grass after winter passes, people can forget what music is—art. And most people would agree with that statement. Well, obviously music is art! Everyone knows that, right? But that’s not really the point I want to make here. Acknowledging that music is art is only the first part of it. Treating music as art is a whole different story.
Imagine yourself in a movie theater. You’ve been waiting to see Grand Budapest Hotel since you first heard a new Wes Anderson movie was in the works, and you’re ready with popcorn in hand. A line of your close friends follows you into the row, the lights dim and the opening scenes begin. But instead of watching the movie in silence, you talk to your friends, check twitter, send snapchats and before you know it, the movie is over. You very well might have had a great time, and you technically saw the movie. But did you really watch the movie?
Now consider an art exhibit. An artist has curated a set of pieces for an exhibit, and made sure that they all work towards a certain theme. Together, they represent an idea and have a purpose. When you walk through, however, you look at two or three of the eight paintings, then spend the rest of the time getting sidetracked by responding to your friends’ messages about their night out. You went to the art exhibit, that’s for sure. But would you be able to argue that you really experienced it?
These are just a few examples that will hopefully help adjust our outlook on music. Before that, though, something must be said about one of music’s unique qualities. Because of the nature of music, we can enjoy it while doing other things. In fact, part of what makes music so wonderful is its accessibility. And that’s beautiful, really. There aren’t many art forms that you can enjoy while driving, exercising or partying. Watching a TV show while steering the wheel is impossible and unsafe, lifting weights while reading a book sounds undesirable and no one is going to pay attention to a movie during your sweaty, packed Mod party.
But I strongly believe that albums are works of art that are meant to be experienced, at least once, in the same way that we experience movies—in isolation, focusing only on the music. Not while studying or playing Xbox or talking to friends. Maybe that sounds extreme, but I only hold that view because some of my favorite experiences with music have happened when I’ve treated albums like movies. I fondly remember the times when I’ve sat down with an album and was taken aback by how remarkable the sounds were, how special it was to hear each and every minute detail that musicians can only hope their listeners will fully enjoy.
Lately I’ve heard from various people that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) is interesting, but not as fulfilling as his previous album. It’s true that music is subjective and that people are entitled to their opinions, so it’s not impossible to think that A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP is better than Kendrick’s TPAB. But certain albums, like TPAB, call for a unique kind of attention that others do not necessarily require. They ask for a style of listening that college students, and people in general, do not embrace often enough. And it’s a listening style that would probably illuminate listeners as to why critics and music junkies enjoy TPAB so much.
The task is simple in description: Put in your headphones and listen to the album. All the way through. It must be in order, without skipping anything, regardless of whether it’s a full song or just part of a song. That doesn’t seem tremendously challenging, but it’s definitely easier said than done.
Listening to an album in order and all the way through is essential to absorbing the information in the way the musician intended. Musicians, just like other artists, curate their work with varying levels of detail that affect the ultimate product. On one end of the spectrum, there are albums like TPAB that make this kind of special attention vital. The poem that unfolds throughout TPAB dictates the path that the songs follow, and “Mortal Man” finishes the album by illuminating the purpose of that poem.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, a place where you might find Taylor Swift’s newest album. 1989 is a pop collection that presents itself as a box of chocolates, where listeners can feel safe closing their eyes and picking any song at random. But even with albums like this, it’s hard to believe that Taylor and other pop musicians would ever arrange their albums haphazardly. Starting 1989 off with the audience-embracing “Welcome to New York” and ending it with the post-downpour, finally content “Clean” reflects the truth that all artists organize their albums with purpose, and that this organization deserves appreciation.
So, why are the headphones necessary? Listen to Kendrick’s “U” without headphones, then listen to it with headphones. It doesn’t take long to recognize that the differences are vast. What makes that song so successfully disorienting, what allows you to tangibly feel Kendrick’s drunken stupor, is the distribution of sounds resonating back and forth between right and left ear bud. That isn’t to say that all songs have such a noticeable contrast between headphones and speakers, but using headphones also concentrates all of the music's outgoing sound into your ears, where you can catch subtleties that are otherwise lost in the background.
Whether it’s with Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly (a truly magnificent album when given the proper attention) or with another album of your choice, I challenge you to put in your headphones, sit down or go for a walk, and just listen to the music. Hear the words. Feel the rhythms swirl around your ears and mind. Get lost in it.
I won’t pretend like listening through an entire album in this way isn’t daunting. It’s a commitment that college students feel they cannot make when they have so many things to do and so many people to see. They believe that music must be secondary to other tasks because it has the ability to do so.
But it’s time we break this belief. Just because music can play alongside another task, doesn’t mean that it should. Like art galleries, movies, books, TV shows and video games, music deserves to be treated like the profound, primary art form that it can be—even if we can only make the time every once in a while, for the musicians we truly love.