The Difference a Plug Makes

While I was in Chicago recently, I purchased a used copy of REM’s recently released MTV Unplugged concerts on compact disc. As has always been my experience with REM, I did not really know what to expect at the time of purchase because while I appreciate the artistry of the band throughout their careers, their music is generally hit or miss for me. There are generally two to three songs I like a whole lot per record and the rest are usually “well this was a neat idea that I appreciate, but I’ll probably never listen to it again.” As I listened to my newly acquired REM record, however, I found myself thinking about what a difference musical accompaniment can make in the evaluation of artists and songs because I found myself – for the first time – head over hills in love with an entire REM release.

Upon reflection, this experience is not all that surprising, and in fact has happened before with other artists I appreciate but do not necessarily enjoy all that much. I’m reminded of my own boredom mixed with appreciation for the style with Nirvana until they released their own unplugged record, which remains one of my favorite albums. I’m also reminded of my experience with metal music that I absolutely love to see and hear played live, but that I absolutely cannot stand to listen to (much of the time) when not experiencing the performances live. I am also reminded of how much I enjoy Aaron Lewis’ country and acoustic recordings even though I cannot stand most of his electric and rock work with Staind. I also think about how much more I love acoustic covers of old classic rock songs than the songs themselves, and how much I enjoy live and acoustic renditions of Hip Hop and Soul compositions that I cannot stand in their glossy, (in my opinion) often overproduced forms. I also think about Beck and the way my appreciation for his work rises and falls depending upon which musical style he is playing with on a given record. I also think of my experience early this year after a friend recommended Brandi Carlile to me, I got a studio recording, I was bored, and then heard a live acoustic performance of hers on the radio one evening and was floored and have been collecting all her work ever since.

I also realize that I’m not alone in this regard. I remember clearly a friend who collected every Hip Hop record that came out while I knew her, but would not go to a live show because it just didn’t sound right no matter the acoustics of the venue. I remember the friend who only liked Phish live, but would not listen to their studio recordings because, as he said, “it killed the feeling.” I remember the friend who complained about as much as I celebrated whenever a rock band did an acoustic record because, as ze put it, “that is not rock n roll anymore, just soft old people shit.” I also remember a friend who lost interest in one of her favorite recording artists because when she went to see a live performance she realized the artist’s voice was adjusted (or produced) on the records in ways that the live experience did not even come close to replicating.

All these observations lead me to wonder what’s in a plug, or any other technology used to change the sound of music from one thing to another across the spectrum of possibilities. How do people react to plugged in verses unplugged music in varied ways, and what aspects of each type of music speak to a given set of listeners? For me, I realize as REM transforms from just another group I kind of appreciate at times to one of the greatest sounds ever by simply removing the plugs, this type of variation in the interpretation of music seems fascinating, and I cannot help but wonder how it plays out in our world.

J. Sumerau

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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4 Responses to The Difference a Plug Makes

  1. Xan Nowakowski says:

    One of the things that strikes me here is how much boundary work we do about what is “real music” and what is “just ______ shit”. We can fill in the blank with our desired terms, but the message carries a similar tenor.

    • J. Sumerau says:

      I think the form of categorization you note is indeed so wide spread in terms of music and what counts for folks, it creates fascinating variations in the ways people address music – thanks for sharing

  2. You don’t mention the situation when and where we listen to music. For me (and I guess for you as well) some music I cannot put on while engaged in other activities, such as working, reading, eating, being with others, etc. whilst for other situation the same music is suitable. Also, the relationship between ‘mood’ (what ever that is) and music might be interesting. When in some state a certain piece of music is just a big No, whilst in other states that music goes; yet, can music really be used to create a ‘mood’ and subsequent behavior, such as buying stuff, as some marketing research argues?

    • J. Sumerau says:

      Oh Dirk, you perfectly captured part of the writing process on this post. I kept going off into all the variations I could come up with and as you mention the situations and moods were big ones. Like you, I find these to be major aspects of musical interpretation. For example, I cannot seem to write without music, but I can write to any music while I have a friend who is basically the opposite in this regard. Then I want certain kinds of music for walking, biking, etc, and I always shift what types of music and even artists (in terms of how amazing I think they are) in relation to my own moods, or what is happening in my life or even how i feel about a given moment.

      I do also wonder about the music and moods thing you note in terms of creating moods. While I think it would be possible for music to create a mood, I wonder if its equally likely that what happens is music uses (i.e., in stores or what not) may simply tap existing moods (i.e., a person in mood x hears music y and feels good, happy, more open to products, etc) rather than creating them. I feel like it could be a reciprocal thing wherein music can trigger a mood if for example its a song deeply meaningful to person x, but also wherein person x can be in a mood and thus notice music y playing in a store but in another mood they might not notice it at all. In any case, I agree with you that these are really fun questions to consider

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