04 June 2009

Pathologies: The Emotions

I'm not ashamed to admit that the primary reason I can't stand most popular music and opera is its supposed emotional content. It actually makes me very uncomfortable to hear someone "pouring their heart out" in the way that many vocalists in these styles aim (and are trained) to do.

The standard line from contemporary pop musicology is that people like me are sociopaths who suppress our own emotions (or have none) and lack the ability to accurately interpret and respond to the emotions of others. Nonetheless, we should ask what it means for such outpourings be taken for granted as merely part of the style. Emotion is no less an animal survival instinct than pain is, whether that be the love between mother and child, or the fear of that lion over there, and though the mechanism by which we come to feel an emotion may be less well understood (either scientifically by others, or even by way of our own self-awareness), it is as practical an attribute as any of our motor or sensory functions, and we've evolved accordingly (sorry creationists, I used up all the egalitarianism I'm able to muster on this issue in the last post).

Hence, as with pain, there's a certain shallowness in appealing to emotional extremes simply to get people's attention. And as with painfully loud music gradually dulling the aural faculties of career soundmen and rock guitarists over the years, I simply have to marvel at the emotional numbness it must take to stomach the more extreme displays of pathos, anger and ecstasy we've been conditioned to expect from the divas.

Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit by putting it that way; many observers past and present have made careers nitpicking about the subtleties of expression in vocal performance and their varying degrees of effectiveness. Then again, what does it matter whether they're effective or not? My problem is not that I can't face emotion, but that I can't stomach artifice. I struggle mightily with the willful suspension of disbelief, this being manifested in my extreme and willful ignorance of literary fiction, theater and cinema. Typically, when it comes to vocal performance, I feel like I'm just watching some poor sap flailing about making faces and using waaaay too much vibrato. That, I think, is more at the heart of my abhorrence for such things than any sort of emotional pathology that might exist.

But getting back to the latter topic, I would ask who can encounter a person crying over the loss of a loved one and not become sad themselves? Who can be surrounded by people laughing hysterically and not let out a chuckle themselves? Emotion is contagious, unless of course you're immune. Neuroscientists call them mirror neurons, but you don't have to be a neuroscientist to have experienced the phenomenon for yourself. The age-old saying about "He who laughs last..." is perhaps the most obvious example.

It confounds me how anyone can listen to a vocalist heaping emotions on top of emotions and not emerge completely frazzled, whether that be a matter of "getting it" and becoming overcome with emotions of their own, or of not "getting it" and being frightened by the artifice of it all. It makes me very uncomfortable to walk in on someone's nervous breakdown, or breakup, or shouting match, or worse yet, their utter failure to put one or more of those things to song.

Of course, one possible explanation as to how people are able to endure these experiences is that pop music listeners tend to experience music almost exclusively as ambient sound and rarely as the primary target of their available attention, whether that be in the car, on the dance floor, or at parties, and that it hence takes much more total content for anything whatsoever to register (in other words, it's once again akin to merely turning up the volume). Failing that, I'm left to wonder if they're the sociopaths and not me, people who have either been fed a bad imitation for so long that they no longer recognize the real thing, or who have been desensitized to it by way of hyper-immersion, their capacity for empathy thus eroding over time like a session man's eardrums.

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