Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Antithesis of Easy Listening

If I say "Opera," what do you think of? Stuffy concert halls stuffed with huffy hushed audience?Sweating sopranos belting out glass-cracking Italian crescendos? The aged elite able to shell out the cash for such a performance? Come on. The answers yes, isn't it?

Now, if I say "Rap," I'm sure quite different images enter the mind. In-your-face ibonic rhymes, delivered by shirtless, tattooed black men? Controversial themes and lyrics, blasting out of car windows reverberating with bass? even if you thought of something else, I assume it's something different than those things mentioned above.

These are commonly held stereotypes, admit it. But surveys show that the majority of listeners worldwide tend to shy away from both musical styles. Rap and opera tend to be the musical genres people feel most strongly about (positively or negatively), despite their distinct differences. Makes one wonder why that could be...

There's, of course, the complex issue of taste to be considered. Social and cultural conditioning, values associated with both musical types and the aforementioned stereotypes. All load each genre with heavy associated baggage. Some people reject both groups, while others relish degrees of perceived inclusion, "taking sides" if you will. It is not outlandish to say that perceptions help determine musical choices and vice versa.

Digging deeper, one can argue that there are many connections, not least of which is the obsessiveness of each genre's most dedicated aficionados.

Consider the opera fanatics. I don't know about you, but those that I've met incessantly critique all aspects of singers, conductors, directors, composers, set designers and opera companies. The hard-core opera geeks know the intricacies of how the human voice works, and how it "should" work in any given operatic role performed by any given singer. Certain voices fit certain roles perfectly, but singers often try on roles a size or two too big. Not pretty, and the opera fan will be sure to loudly point that out.

In the "higher realms of rap," you have to navigate the interior social strata, the subtleties of sampling and layers of meaning behind the braggadocio and how it relates to selling records. Rap, like opera, also has a complicated "cast list." Keeping up with who appears on whose singles, mixtapes and remixes can be as confounding as keeping track of who sang what on the famous Knappertsbusch Ring cycles. And with rap, like opera, there are a huge amount of regional variety, from Compton to Atlanta to the Bronx, London and Istanbul. It's like high school all over again. Who doing what and with who and who's cool now and who's not anymore.

There are some, however, that say society has little to do with preferences.
Rather, they're all about communication. The languages of rap and opera just don't speak to some people. Both the actual language that each genre uses in performance and the convoluted vernaculars each has engendered There are actually dictionaries of both hip hop and opera jargon). Opera and rap rely heavily on words, many of which are not immediately discernible (especially if you actually don't happen to speak the language). Rap can have complex poetry (and profanity) zipping past at indecipherable speeds (do they want you to hear it? And what about those "turbo-rappers?"). Opera often has foreign tongues and high flying phrasing, requiring CD listeners to run to their printed librettos and opera houses to install supertitles. Yes, that's right: supertitles.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that Opera and rap take work to appreciate — perhaps more work than these average listeners are willing to expend.In a world where more and more music is available to anyone's ears, there have developed a great many lazy listeners (harsh, I know, but true, I think). Is it too easy to download too much, to acquire everything but actually hear nothing? Um, yeah, it is. Many people love a hit song, but few take the time to fully appreciate a complete hip-hop album, let alone an entire opera. It also takes work to enjoy music that's as in-your-face as opera and rap admittedly are.

With all the melodrama, social consciousness, violence and intense vocal styles, they certainly are not musical furniture. Like it or hate it, it's definitely in the room.

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