Music Torture: An Experiment in Which One Brave Writer Submits Himself to …Baby One More Time on Repeat for a Week.

“What?” says my friend with incredulity at my proposal.“I said,” I reply in a calm tone, “I will listen to Britney Spears for an entire week and see if I grow to like it.” “Well if you are serious about this,” says my friend after a lengthy pause, “I will keep my distance for the next week so that I’m not in the vicinity when you inevitably go on a killing rampage when your mind eventually snaps.”I suspected that my friend was right. If I listened to nothing else but Britney’s debut album (with the regrettably unforgettable title, …Baby One More Time) for an entire week there would only be two possible outcomes: I would either grow to like the tunes of the fallen pop princess or go completely bonkers at some stage during the experiment. Some would argue, given the nature of this crude proposal, that the latter has already occurred. I was definitely hoping to avoid head bobbing to its ubiquitous title track, even if it meant flirting with the idea of a mental breakdown.  It was a hope that was obscenely shattered on day two. Let’s go back to the start though and please, let me explain. Behind this seemingly masochistic experiment lies some form of reason. I only need a few dot points to show you the heart of the argument. 1) Think of your favourite genre of music. Really. Do it. How much time do you spend listening to this genre?2) Now think of your least favourite genre and think how much time you spend listening to this genre. Fairly straight forward. The answer to the first question was ‘a lot’. The answer to the second was ‘not so much’. The reason behind this seems obvious: We listen to our favourite genres the most BECAUSE it is the genre we like the most. Then there appeared this little voice in my head that whispered, “What if we actually enjoy a certain genre BECAUSE we’ve listened to it the most?” While this idea is on shaky ground if forced to stand by itself, it does have some merit. Thinking about my favourite bands, I never liked them initially. My ears always needed a certain adjustment before accepting the sound as enjoyable. I thought Radiohead was weird ambient music with unusual drumbeats, I was convinced Nick Cave was a terrible singer, thought Portishead was too mellow, Opeth too heavy and Mogwai too slow. Now they are all amongst my favourite bands. If you need repetition to like anything, then what if repetition is ALL you needed to like ANYTHING? In other words, could you listen to a good representative of any genre and learn to enjoy it, given enough time? The beauty behind this question is that it is easily tested. All I needed to do is pick an artist from a genre I would never willingly listen to, then see if I grew to like it, given enough time. I could only think of mainstream pop as the genre that I positively despise listening to, and the perfect representative of mindless pop that I’d never want to listen to is, naturally, Britney Spears.And so it began. One week of continuous Britney, of her ‘explosive’ debut album, …Baby One More Time. The album has 16 songs in total, including numerous b-sides, and clocks in at almost an hour in length. I would allow myself to listen to nothing else for seven days. At an estimate, even conservatively I would be listening to Britney for well over an hour every day, knowing my listening habits. That is over an hour of soppy lyrics, identical drumbeats and generally shallow performance. If I was to go through with this, something was going to give. I would either stab my eardrums with really sharp pencils or grow to accept the sound of everything I stand against when it comes to music. I wasn’t particularly keen on either idea. On the first listen to the album I had to admit it wasn’t bad. It was music written to a carefully constructed formula that got the inattentive listener’s head bobbing in no time. The tunes were catchy, the beats simple and easy to bop along to. Not particularly imaginative or exciting, but highly consumable. Kind of like McDonalds. The second listen is when it started growing on me; the tunes were already becoming familiar. However my brain was still telling me it was simply not okay to sing along. Regardless, that happened on the third listen, then would occur on every listen afterwards. Riding my bike to work singing along to “Baby One More Time” became daily routine. Laughing at me became my friends’ daily routine too. Listen four and five kind of got me hooked on “From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart” (“…there’s just a thing or two I’d like to know / you were my first love / you were my true love / from the first kiss…”) Lyrics that are so genuine, full of heartfelt emotion. But also, complete trash. It didn’t matter though. I realised that familiarity overrode very quickly the subconscious part of my brain that was separating good from bad. Familiarity and repetition can make you fond of anything. I had to admit it was happening in my own brain. Britney was sounding better day-by-day. Then day three I started getting sick of the same songs. I was dreading plugging in my headphones, I simply couldn’t do it anymore… I needed some ‘real’ music. Even though I was almost enjoying listening to the songs by then, I was simply bored with it. There was only so much you can get out of simple pop tunes. I’d heard everything the album had to offer, so I cheated. I listened to some Belle & Sebastian, then some Chemical Brothers. Maybe even some Sigur Ros. It was a welcome reprieve, almost like coming to the surface and taking a quick breath after being underwater for too long. The next day however, I went back to my plan and was faced with surprise. I suddenly found I enjoyed listening to Britney much more than before. Some switch in my brain had been permanently flicked; the override function that was saying “this is lame” had now turned off. That welcome break from Britney actually strengthened the sugary pop addiction in my brain. From day five onwards, I genuinely enjoyed the tunes. I don’t know how many people in the world genuinely enjoy heavy metal and mainstream pop music but I suddenly found myself fitting under this category. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. To really learn a lesson from this quirky musical experiment I thought it would be worth reflecting.Now I will be the first one to admit that we need to rule out repetition being the only determining factor in enjoying a certain genre of music. There are certain sounds that will never become pleasant to the human ear, no matter how many times it’s repeated. You can scrape a fork across a plate a thousand times and it will sound equally horrendous every single time. Furthermore, there is some really terrible music out there, in any genre, and picking to listen to these over and over again will not serve the greater good. However there is an aspect of the human brain that’s easy to overlook. The power of familiarity and positive association. You probably didn’t always like your favourite band. There was an initial trigger that made you listen to them. It could have been the suggestion of a close friend, whose opinion you valued, it could’ve been a song that caught your attention in the latest iPod ad, or the song that was playing when you had your first kiss. In every case, some form of positive association made your brain flick the switch to ‘like’. We all like different types of sounds for complicated reasons. Underlying your musical taste is an intricate web of influences that are mainly subconscious, and being aware of its presence is an important step to becoming open minded about music. After all, you can only hear with clarity if you haven’t already made up your mind about it. In fact, you could apply that last sentence to not just music, but everything else in life. But that would be taking things down the philosophical path and you are already getting bored. If you want to take away a moral from me, then how about this. Listen to something before blurting out your opinion on it, listen to it over and over and over again.  Oh, and Britney rules. Bitch.  by Andy Szollosi

November 11th 2011
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