What influenced your musical taste most... radio, tv, film or literature?

July 12, 2008 12:13 AM

What influenced your musical taste most... radio, tv, film or literature?

The band I'm a part of was asked this recently as a part of a comp. So, without saying too much or being too evasive, I'm wondering what your answers would be. Would one or more of these count as an influence for you? If so, who would the artist(s) be? Do you think of "influences" when you're writing a song/album? Do you think in genres rather than songs? When you hear a song do you think, "Holy hell, I need to write a song like that"? For instance, every time I hear Sly and the Family Stone's album A Whole New Thing, it just makes me want to write songs until I'm fired from whatever it is I'm doing for work (as a very small example). I wouldn't have known about Sly if my parents wouldn't have played him as a kid, so my answer would be radio (since I also remember hearing "Stand" on the radio in the 70s), but also my parents. So, how about you?

I'm also posting our answer (which quite possibly makes no sense and isn't detailed enough and is, admittedly, really damn lame):

All of that, actually. We both listened to a lot of music as kids because our parents loved music. Also, [sleepy pete] used to have really horrible ear problems as a kid. When he was 14 he had an earache so bad that the next day he could hear everything both regularly and simultaneously a tinny reverberation about a quarter step off. The effect lasted about a day, but stuck with him all his life.

And if this is too chatty or too broad for our new feature, please feel free to delete it mods, but these are the things I'm most interested in with relation to songwriters.
posted by sleepy pete (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

That earache thing is interesting, sleepy pete. As a child (about 6 years old, I think) I went through a bizarre period that lasted about a month or so, where I'd get these strange spells of what I guess you could call "hyper-hearing". It would come and go, but I remember it to this day cause it was really unnerving. Frightening. Every little sound, like the rustling of sheets in the bed, or walking on leaves, usually really innocuous and unnoticeable, all those kinds of sounds were, well, turned up to 11. It was weird as hell. And then, it just stopped happening. Has never recurred.

Hadn't thought about that in a loooong time, but your earache story reminded me.

Otherwise, this is a good question post, IMO. I look forward to reading people's answers, as well as offering some answers of my own, a little later.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:46 AM on July 12, 2008

(that earache thing is really interesting... Huh. I had ear trouble as a kid, too-- never that dramatic-- and I never thought about how it affected musical growth except that I've always figured it was safer to keep my right ear pointed at the drummer, since it's the one that doesn't work as well anyway...)

It's a tough one to nail down, especially since my (and I bet it's like this for all of us) taste still keeps shifting as time goes on.

But if I look at it like, what were the booster rockets that got me started on at least listening to and thinking about music, it's probably a combo of radio and my parents' crappy-with-a-few-gold-nuggets record collection, with late-80s MTV kicking in as the boosters separated. Heard a lot-- metric shit-tons-- of classic rock on the radio as a kid, and internalized a bunch of it; and as I started to get older, that's where I really started evaluating is-this-good-or-is-it-shit-and-why? So the whole idea of musical aesthetics started there for me, and the idea of trying to pick out which instrument was causing which noise. My parents' record collection dipped out of a lot of the same water (Jesus, they loved them some Wings), but it also planted a bunch of seeds that spouted kind of interestingly later. It was kind of a cool thing in college to realize out of nowhere that because of childhood exposure, I knew pretty much every Hank Williams song really well, even though I'd never really liked him until then. That realization, and the resulting "hey, y'know, this is actually really good" led to a big old-timey country explosion that I still kind of ride.

Ultimately, though, I wonder if it's an impossible question to answer, exactly what influences taste. At a macro level, (I think) I know my big driving urges in music are to make weird noises and to rock out kind of hard. So do I have those urges because I like Sonic Youth and Husker Du, respectively? Or do I like Sonic Youth and Husker Du because they line up with the primal musical urges?

Also: Do you think of "influences" when you're writing a song/album? Do you think in genres rather than songs? When you hear a song do you think, "Holy hell, I need to write a song like that"?

I definitely don't consciously think of influences when I'm writing, but my songs always come out of just fucking around with a guitar (and having written that, I just remembered that there was a stretch of a couple of years where I pretty consciously wouldn't write a song unless it sounded like something Jay Farrar or Jeff Tweedy would sing, so I guess this has changed over time, too). I definitely do hear songs and think "wow I need to write one like that," but the results never, ever wind up sounding like the inspiration.
posted by COBRA! at 6:52 AM on July 12, 2008

And if this is too chatty or too broad for our new feature, please feel free to delete it mods, but these are the things I'm most interested in with relation to songwriters.

Nah, this seems like good discussy fun.

For me, I'd split it between "radio" and "literature", with the caveats that by radio I really mean CDs and live shows—I just didn't listen to the radio all that much growing up, and have done so pretty not at all for several years now—and by literature I really mean sub-literature.

I've whipped out a notebook more than once when I was at a show and someone one stage dropped a line that got my head going. It's always nice to really listen to how other people do lyrics, because it's like being hit over the head by the different ways people put their ideas into words and string those words across melody and rhythm. I end up feeling like, oh! I've got to try that.

Same thing for reading, but more explicitly lyrical or thematic inspiration—a really compelling image, or a fantastically sharp line, or a really evocative juxtaposition of characters in a way that seems to beg for a soundtrack.
posted by cortex at 8:12 AM on July 12, 2008

Radio. There is no doubt, Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion irreparably influenced my musical taste. God knows what sort of music I'd be playing if I hadn't been fed a steady dose of Guy's All-Star Shoe Band from an early age onward.
posted by The White Hat at 9:50 AM on July 12, 2008

If I had to choose one of those four, it would be radio, and I'll explain why:

I grew up in Mexico. And while hanging out with my friends as a kid would mean being exposed to a lot of Mtv and to music in general from the US, when I started riding on public transport I got exposed to a whole different universe of music. This was music that I wasn't supposed to ever listen to, music that was meant for lower life forms than us cool kids. Needles to say, the music in the buses was much better than most of what was on TV: mad yodeling cumbias, cheesy cumbias, narcocorridos, redovas, sonoras, and many other raunchy things that I was first exposed to by the blaring radios of the public buses.

It was them that made me curious to search for new and unexpected forms of music, and it was then that I learn that music is to be judged solely with your ears, not your social preconceptions or your political inclinations.
posted by micayetoca at 11:29 AM on July 12, 2008

As for:

And if this is too chatty or too broad for our new feature, please feel free to delete it mods, but these are the things I'm most interested in with relation to songwriters.
posted by sleepy pete

Nah, this seems like good discussy fun.
posted by cortex

I agree with cortex. We are still defining how this Music Talk section is going to work, and I think several people have expressed that they wouldn't like it to be hijacked and turned into a place where people attach each other tastes or where people post top 5 lists and the like, but this is different. While it is not strictly a "technical question" it is a valid question and it will give any songwriter some insight as to how the minds of other songwriters work. I guess one of the parameters could be to ask if the post in question is really useful for other musicians or songwriters, and in this particularly case, I think it is.
posted by micayetoca at 11:37 AM on July 12, 2008

of course, the paragraph above should say: where people attaCK each other tastes.
posted by micayetoca at 11:38 AM on July 12, 2008

*attaches micayetoca's tastes to pirate radio transmitter*
posted by cortex at 11:42 AM on July 12, 2008

I'd have to say that some combination of all four of those affected my musical tastes, though radio and literature both a bit less than the others. More specifically, the Muppets had a huge impact on me while growing up. Colourful, humorous, inoffensive, often bizarre, occasionally avant garde, they strongly influenced my taste in ... well ... most everything, really. As did Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with which, while not sure which of those four categories they fall under, I have always been completely enthralled (though I'm no match for such extensive tri-syllabic rhyme schemes). Both the Muppets and Gilbert and Sullivan were able to convey emotional content and complex stories without taking themselves too seriously, examples including The Muppet Movie and Yeoman of the Guard.

Do you think of "influences" when you're writing a song/album?

There is one song I frequently think about when writing music. It's a Ben Folds Five song. Now, I don't much care for Ben Folds Five, but there's a short song from their second album called "Cigarette" which is one sentence from a newspaper article. It's brief and tells a somewhat involved story. The biggest influence, however, is generally whatever happens to be stressing me out, be it hunting for an apartment, trying to get a license, not being able to pick my girlfriend up from work, cockroach infestations, whatever. Combining current circumstances with the "Cigarette" model, I try to come up with songs that are brief but tell a slightly intricate story.

Do you think in genres rather than songs?

I think in terms of the instruments I have on hand. Sometimes, it's just my voice. Often there's a ukulele and some kazoo in there. I don't really think much about genre.

When you hear a song do you think, "Holy hell, I need to write a song like that"?

Yes! This happens pretty much anytime I hear a song I enjoy, in fact. Especially when it's by a band called Dufus. Or the Muppets.

Oh! And Cornelius ... Cornelius ... man, they always make me want to create beautiful and amazing things. God, I love Cornelius.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 7:49 PM on July 12, 2008

That earache thing is fascinating. Two or three months ago, I drove home from work with the radio on and the windows down and noticed that it sounded a bit weird. Figured it was just fluttery currents blowing around. When I got home, I realized that everything I heard in my left ear was about 25 cents flat. I was terrified. Really, really terrified. I thought I was having a stroke. I thought I'd never be able to make music again. Because that sort of just-slight-enough detuning in one ear was completely ruining my sense of pitch. It lasted 6 or 8 hours and hasn't happened again. Brains are very strange things.

To the question, though, I am very, very strongly influenced by the radio. I grew up listening to pop music. Pop from the 50s and 60s, but also disco, 80s pop, and so forth. My cousin introduced me to rap with Raising Hell, and it wasn't until (cliche alert) Nevermind that I became interested in rock. Although I'm primarily attracted to rock these days, I really love pop music. All my rock sensibilities are driven by pop, and I have a deep respect for the Top 40. Well, some of it, at least. It takes something special to write a certifiable radio hit, and I really enjoy listening to Top 40 to identify them (there are usually a handful at a time, and they're very obvious).
posted by uncleozzy at 9:17 AM on July 13, 2008

It seems impossible to decide.

I guess I'd pick radio and TV, tied. Video Hits with Samantha Taylor got me obsessed with pop music. Local late-night alternative college radio got me obsessed with electronic and industrial music.

But I'm sure the biggest influence was the classic rock my dad played around the house and the little kids' turntable and throwaway disco records I was allowed to ruin. Everything else just steered that foundation in different directions.
posted by frenetic at 12:55 PM on July 13, 2008

Also, [sleepy pete] used to have really horrible ear problems as a kid. When he was 14 he had an earache so bad that the next day he could hear everything both regularly and simultaneously a tinny reverberation about a quarter step off. The effect lasted about a day, but stuck with him all his life.

Holy shit, sleepy pete--this is a bit off-topic, but the same thing happened to me, only when I was much older in college. It never occurred to me at the time that it might be an ear problem; I just thought that all the acid that, um, my friends used to slip into my tea when I wasn't looking had somehow screwed with my head and left me exposed to a wider range of the harmonic overtones in acoustic sound than are normally audible (yeah, college was an odd time). Of course, the condition eventually cleared up, and now it seems obvious the problem was more with my ears than my brain (not to rule out any overlap).

On topic, this is an interesting and difficult question. I've been influenced by music of all kinds over the years, from obscure to mainstream, in genres including british invasion-era pop, old-school country (Hank, sr., Willie Nelson), rockabilly, metal, punk, hardcore, prog rock, what they used to call "mod" when I was growing up, ambient, pop, all flavors of indie. The first Tangemeenie album consciously played around with TV and movie soundtrack music conventions because I was kind of cynically fascinated by that stuff at the time.

But music is much more personal to me than any particular musical preferences I've had at different points in time. Over the years the one thing that's kept me coming back to music-making and listening--the only thing that really got me started caring about music in the first place--are memories of my mother letting me blow bubbles through the stem of her coffee-can bubbler bong and singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" to me at bedtime when I was a little boy in Germany.

Her voice was far from perfect, but somehow the flaws in her delivery just made the song seem more beautiful. I didn't really know what the song was about (and of course I didn't appreciate the irony). But when I was three, that song seemed like the most sad and beautiful thing I had ever heard, and at the same time, hearing it sung in my mother's hushed and cracking voice left me with a feeling of love, warmth and security that never went away, even after I was separated from her and started living with my family in the states. All my life I've been drawn back to music in various ways, partly out of a desire to recapture the feeling of those moments in some way. This anecdote is probably way too earnest and navel-gazing, but it's the only honest answer I've got. I think the reason those memories of my mom's voice singing that stupid song had such a profound effect on me as I went through life was that those experiences led me to the conviction that even simple songs can have the power to move people in ways no other mode of expression can. The right song, sung at the right time and place, has magic in it. And anytime I start to get too cynical about music, I try to remember that.

So for me the answer is really none of the above: It wasn't film, TV, radio, or even literature. It was the sound of my mother's voice, singing sweetly off-key.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:45 PM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

For me, it was my father, and his eclectic taste in music; he basically listened to everything and anything, from LPs of musicals he brought back from when he was stationed in Germany to a 45 of Rick Deez's song "Disco Duck." His appetite for music continued through the 80s; his collection of CDs was more cutting-edge than that of most of my friends. At the same time, he had a couple of standbys like Harry Chapin that he listened to more than most, and it was the sadness in those songs (my father was a very depressive person, and he would listen to certain music incessantly when feeling down) that probably keeps me from writing "sad" songs to this day.
posted by davejay at 8:59 AM on July 14, 2008

Quick thought about what everything and anything means -- he had every album Adam and the Ants ever released, and at the same time took my mother on vacation in the south to go line dancing.
posted by davejay at 9:00 AM on July 14, 2008

I want to give props to literature as an influence. I studied some poetry in college, and although I'm not exceptionally well-read in it, I am often thinking about the structure of poems when trying to write lyrics. Images from the first part of the song that come back different later in the song, line structures that get repeated with variations, and lots of other little tricks that are standard parts of my toolbox come directly from studying poetry (although I don't write any "stand-alone" non-musical poems).

Also I habitually steal entire lines of favorite poems or songs and repurpose them for my own use, and I am delighted when I see others doing this - its a kind of a wink and a nod, an acknowledgment of this great tradition of lyric writing we all inherit. A couple of examples: "You Were Right" by Built To Spill and "I've Got You" by The Damnwells, and of course just about any song in the blues tradition.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 2:53 PM on July 14, 2008

I should probably also give a shout out to song lyrics. Long before MP3s came along, as a broke teenager music was scarce. I'd buy some, copy some from friends and tape a lot off the radio.

There was an FTP site of lyrics (and I can't remember the name) that I regularly swiped lyrics from. Besides getting the words to songs I had, I'd grab the lyrics for songs and artists that I thought were cool and read them. There are still tons of songs I've read but never listened to.
posted by frenetic at 6:33 PM on July 14, 2008

Saul I mean this in the nicest way possible, I love your stuff (I play "Her Favorite Records" all the time) but that's probably the cheesiest thing I've ever heard
posted by BrnP84 at 7:48 PM on July 14, 2008

BrnP84: One person's cheese is another person's story about their mother. I thought it was beautiful, but I've known quite a few people with memories like that and I'm also fairly cheesy. A nice queso fresco. Oh, and the acid thing--I never really heard things like that time my ear hurt again until I was taking hallucinogens, so I can completely understand.

Thanks for the answers, everyone. I'm enjoying them so far. It's a very hard question I think. There's absolutely no way to pick one for me and a lot of it boils down to people after the radio, tv, film or literature. I'm also glad to see literature mentioned. Lyrics are very important for me (unless, of course, they're instrumental). My main songwriting partner and I tend to use literature as a starting point all the time for our songs (we have both studied it quite a bit) and work in lines of poetry, novels, other songs as devices of allusion all the time. Many of my favorite songwriters/lyricists (Ray Davies and Rakim--for flat out poetry--come instantly to mind) have a way of creating literate and literary songs that amazes me to no end.

Anyway, keep the answers coming! These are great.

And if you missed it in the other thread, here's micayetoca's awesome muxtape.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:29 PM on July 14, 2008

Yea sleepy, that's why I meant it in the nicest way possible.
posted by BrnP84 at 8:40 PM on July 14, 2008

radio, tv, film or literature

This is really hard. I was thinking the other day about what my influences are and it's hard to figure out -- I mean, I don't sound anything like most of my favorite bands and couldn't if I tried, no matter how hard I swipe. Everything turns out "Amateurish New Wave Pop" or, occassionally, "Americana-tinged Amateurish New Wave Pop."

Maybe radio, if I'm allowed to count the time I was a college radio DJ and could plow through the vinyl with impunity. My show was a "train wreck" format and I threw on lots of stuff with, usually, no regard to flow -- from Planxty to Oily Bloodmen to Run DMC and back again.

TV is a good one, too -- I really like songs from Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock -- if I ever write a song as good as "Up and Down" or "Follow Me" or "Mobity Mosely's Months" it would be my best song ever.

TV, also, if music video shows count. I never heard much New Wave stuff on the radio, but it was all over shows like "Good Rockin' Tonite" on Canadian TV (I live just south of the Canadian border and my idea of the worldwide importance of bands like 8 Seconds and Frozen Ghost is probably skewed).

Film and literature, not really. Maybe Edward Gorey?

Do you think in genres rather than songs?

I think in terms of genres a lot. I usually end up with stuff that's stilted and uncomfortable, though, if I stray too far, due to my own limitations. But I have no problem thinking of songs as totally non-cohesive with each other as a whole -- it's important to me that different songs have totally different feelings, and if they all end up sounding like New Wave Pop, their roots are often pretty scattershot. Like my old radio show, if I can go from a sea shanty to a techno-dance tune, I'm happy.

When you hear a song do you think, "Holy hell, I need to write a song like that"?

Hmm. Sure, yeah. Often it'll be a specific technique, like, "oh, I totally need to try a drum loop" or "backwards vocals!" or something. Songs that actually inspire me tend to be low-fi and homemade -- stuff like early They Might Be Giants or Tall Dwarfs. I'm never going to be inspired by, say, Steely Dan.

I get inspired by construction more than performance, for sure -- since I don't really play any instruments, I never say, "oh, yeah, this guitar solo makes me want to shred!" or "I can totally do a bluegrass tune like this on my banjo!" but I might say, "hey, every verse of this song is two lines shorter than the verse preceding it -- I should try that!"
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 3:04 AM on July 15, 2008

that's probably the cheesiest thing I've ever heard

yeah, i know. well, it's hard to get that kind of personal story across in words without it sounding maudlin, and i knew i probably wasn't doing it justice in the telling. but if you'd been there and felt that way for even a moment yourself, you'd know exactly what i mean and you'd find yourself reduced to writing indefensibly bad prose to describe it, too.

popular children songs and folk songs in general (not the 60s folk movement stuff so much, but traditional folk songs) have been a big influence on me. songs that for whatever reason have stuck around and crossed generational boundaries--particularly those that have or seem to have darker thematic undercurrents--like "ring around the rosie," "on top of old smoky," "the old lady who swallowed a fly," etc. one of the songs on the first tangemeenie record (called "seam") has the line "so perhaps we'll die" in it, and that was lifted pretty much straight from "the old lady who swallowed a fly." (the lyrics to that song, incidentally, were written while looking out the window of the plane as my wife and i flew back to the states from germany after our honeymoon was cut short by my grandmother dying suddenly of heart failure. life really is just that corny sometimes.)

old canon literature is a major secondary influence--shakespeare, plato and dante are great sources for raw material. also the moderns, like faulkner, eliot, berryman, etc. classical mythology also offers a treasure trove of renewable ideas. but old or new, it's all good.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:32 AM on July 15, 2008

Discovering - and listening to - Frank Zappa's music.
posted by nicolin at 11:55 AM on July 23, 2008

To be honest, I always avoid thinking about what my influences are nowadays. It seems to boil down to "anything I hear, music or otherwise."

The circumstances music usually pops in my head? When I'm trying to sleep. Jingles start distracting me. If a riff sticks, a song starts piecing itself together in my head, and it's usually "belonging" to one genre or another. Then, it's whatever ... just sounds right. I only put the brakes on if I wander into an area where I think, "oh, this sounds just like x or y," since I like to fool myself that I'm being somewhat original. In that sense, I try to steer away from my influences. [This month's challenge has thus been even more challenging, since I'm trying to steer right into oncoming traffic: negative influences.]

I'd say the one thing that broadened my musical palette more than any other medium is, yep, the good ol' interweb-tubes. Napster allowed me to catch up on all the music that I was recommended but couldn't afford. MetaFilter is the other big door opened; without it, I wouldn't have been pointed to so many interesting things. (No small thanks to flapjax.) In this way, the net has trumped radio, TV, film, art, etc. as my main medium-of-influence.

Literature? Wow, never thought of that, since I'm such a lyric-a-write-a-phobic. RunRunRunRun
posted by not_on_display at 1:11 PM on July 23, 2008

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