By Jemima Skala
Art by Veera Rajamaa
In 1975, Lou Reed came out with Metal Machine Music (MMM), an album full of ambient, harsh, grating, indefinable guitar feedback that pushed the boundaries of what we class as music. One of the reviews that emerged after its release just had ‘NO’ printed in capital letters, repeated to fill the journalist’s word count. It’s widespread critical reception was harsh to say the least, and the album was recently included in Q magazine’s 2005 list of the fifty worst albums ever made.
Despite still being regarded as a joke by the industry, MMM is inspired and inspiring. Reed filled a whole double album with electric guitar drones, uncomfortable enough to set your teeth on edge. But isn’t it a good thing to be unsettling? To put the listener out of their comfort zone? Reed’s taste for the avant-garde can be seen in glimpses throughout musical history since the release of MMM: Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, and the iconoclastic ideology of The KLF. Point being: just because it didn’t necessarily sound how it was supposed to, or how people were used to music sounding, doesn’t mean MMM wasn’t a valuable album, a standalone piece of art and a legacy for generations to come.
The side-lining of Metal Machine Music by the music world and the general public is symptomatic of a wider disease: we are resistant to music that doesn’t fit into our comfort zone. Last summer, I was travelling America to visit some relatives. My uncle walked into my room as I was listening to Caribou’s wonderful ‘Can’t Do Without You’, and he didn’t even wait to listen to it before proclaiming, “How can you listen to this? It’s just the same thing over and over. It’s boring!” He was only appeased when I switched over to the less offensive pop of ‘Take Me Dancing’ by Will Joseph Cook.
It’s sad that we can only listen to the same version of things over and over again. In a very postmodernist train of thought, of course nothing totally original can ever be created at this point in our history. But isn’t it refreshing to find that one song, that one genre that pushes you outside of the norm?
Before I got to university, I was a little indie guitar band shithead. I would scoff and turn my nose up if it had been made with anything other than “real instruments”. I didn’t understand it, therefore I feared it, therefore I refused point blank to listen to it. In my eyes, Arctic Monkeys were a genius band and no musician alive or dead could hold a candle to them. I’d never even dared to listen to hip hop, or R&B, or anything that didn’t have a guitar in it. Which is bizarre considering the broad musical palette of my upbringing. My dad, being a massive reggae head, reared me on the sounds of Bunny Wailer and Toots & The Maytals, rubbing shoulders happily in his CD collection with Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles. There was no musical discrimination in what he played me, so why should I have had such a narrow view?
The way I see it, my gradual and ongoing musical education is like an hourglass: wide, then narrow for a bit in the middle, then all pooling together at the end again. The narrow part in the middle was important, because it allowed me to distinguish my tastes from my parents’ and peers’, allowing me to find something that I thought was cool, and define myself in a teenage identity crisis. But when I got to university, I was forced to confront the realisation that white indie guitar bands are not Gods, and there are perfectly valid, if not more redeeming, points to other genres. My first year of university was when I properly sat down and listened to hip hop, techno, rap, R&B. I was plunged into a world of sampling, loops and drum machines, taking me far away from my perception of instrument-based music as “real music” and taking me to far-off lands where anything was possible with a computer and a bit of know-how.
And now, I feel that because of my broadened music taste, I have a far more balanced view of the world. Music is meant for sharing, and is therefore a kind of Rosetta Stone in terms of how we are able to understand other cultures and other worldviews. I am now very suspicious of anyone who isn’t willing to listen to new kinds of tunes or unfamiliar musical genres, because, to me, that indicates a narrowmindedness, a closed-off way of viewing the world that excludes and judges based on a pre-conceived, concrete set of values.
So to return to Metal Machine Music, don’t discount something because it sounds weird, or unfamiliar, or kind of sad when you normally listen to happy music. I’m not saying you have to like everything you listen to, but at least give it a go. If you don’t, you’ll never discover your new favourite band hidden in all that scary reverb.