Thursday, May 06, 2010

Song of the Week: Van Morrison "Glad Tidings"

In college, I had different groups of friends. There were friends in the music school--snobby, artistic, overworked music geek types. They could compare technical elements of Beethoven's 5th symphony with the Beatles' "Wait." Naturally, I liked them.

There were friends in the English department--bookworms and pre-lawyers and lazy non-educators. They could trace Allen Ginsberg's poetic influence on Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Naturally, I liked them too.

There were a friends in athletics. There were pre-med friends. There were engineers, and people I happened to live near. There were even some theater kids. They all listened to music, and liked it for different reasons, and I enjoyed them all.

But mostly, my closest friends were a combination of frat-guys and de facto frat guys. Because half the school was Greek, either you were or at least some of your friends were. And one of my favorite offshoots of this social system was getting to watch my frat guy friends listen to music. Over four years, I came to know Frat Guy Music. Frat Guy Music is not the music played at frat parties. That's party music, and it's played for the guests (read: girls). Frat Guy Music is what's played before frat parties. It goes like this:

It's 5PM on Friday. It's sunny out. Class is over, but the night hasn't started. There are twelve guys in front of the house throwing a football and holding Solo cups. There is time to kill and there good times to be had with your bros, bro. Suddenly, an iPod blasts a playlist from inside the house, out to the lawn, and into the early evening. It's a mood-suiting background for a specific, recurring pre-party scene.

Frat Guy Music isn't a genre; it's an aesthetic type of music. It's upbeat, cheerful, generally mellow (it's not time to "rock out" or "get crunk" yet, you see), "rootsy" in some nebulous way, imminently singable, and unflinchingly male. For example, alt-country is a genre. Ryan Adams' Gold can be loosely defined as an "alt-country" album. But Ryan Adams' Gold falls under the aesthetic blanket of Frat Guy Music. That is, nobody would balk if "Firecracker" came on that iPod. They'd nod and continue soaking up the fading afternoon, bro. As well they should. They're having a good time, and that's what "good time music" is there for. It's a beautiful thing.

Which brings me to Van Morrison.

Song of the Week: Van Morrison, "Glad Tidings"

My frat guy friends loved Van Morrison. He was the centerpiece of any pre-party scene. Whenever they needed Frat Guy Music for a Frat Guy Time, the playlist was built around his catalog. Before college, this would've struck me as odd; though I liked him, Van Morrison was rarely my first thought for any situation. Now, it seems totally reasonable. Van Morrison is universally recognized and respected (i.e., nobody will make fun of the selection). He occupies an aesthetic that's hard to dislike. His music is remarkably consistent in terms of "mood-setting," etc. While he might not be any one person's favorite artist, nobody hates him. Van Morrison's music is beautiful and dynamic and multi-faceted, and can support different types of listening experiences. My English major and music school and pre-med friends could all find a different reasons to like him. But Van Morrison is also quintessential Frat Guy Music. And "Glad Tidings" might be his quintessential Frat Guy Song.

I love "Glad Tidings." I love that it offers nothing beyond its title, and that's more than enough. It's a simple statement of well-wishing, a gesture, a hand offered, a simple piece of cheer, hope, and generally good vibes, bro. This makes it simple, but not dumb.

We occasionally over-intellectualize the experience of music. I do it all the time. Great pop songs can do so many things--reflect our current mood, alter our perspective, give advice, provide company, make us think, challenge us, disgust us, provoke us, bring us together, etc. Music can keep us down if we're down. If we're depressed, it can commiserate. If we need a cultural touchstone for a barroom argument, it's there. It can support all the panel discussions, doctorates, and tomes of criticism you need from it. It's there for the music school snobs and the English majors alike. I love all of it.

But talking about music can only advance--not replace--the first and greatest pleasure of music: that visceral, emotional connection to a song. The fun of a handclap. An unexpected, bouncing horn line. Humming a catchy melody. Singing along with a friend. Going outside, getting some sun, throwing a football, enjoying the company, and taking pleasure in a good, simple thing.

So raise the Solo cup. Here's to Van Morrison. Here's to "Glad Tidings." Here's to Frat Guy Music. And here's to my friends from school who knew then what's easy to forget now: music is meant to be enjoyed first.

Cheers, bro.

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