Thursday, February 21, 2008

Words, words, words

After a very long day at work I sat down and turned on a cd of Cui Jian, one of the most popular Chinese rock musicians. I love his music, the driving rhythms, the passion, and the words.

But how do I love the words? I don't know a bit of what he's saying. I can't say hello or goodbye in Mandarine. He might be saying terrible things. I very much doubt it, but I don't really know. So how can I say I love the words?

Is it just his voice? His inflection? The passion in his voice? That portion of his poetics that transcends linguistic differences?

I don't know, it probably has to do with all of these. If the same songs were played without vocals they wouldn't have quite the same appeal that they now have.

But the fact that the words do have a meaning, whether I understand it or not, is important. Lewis Carroll wrote some very fun (and funny) nonsense poems in which the voice does all of these things, inflection, passion etc., and I enjoy those poems. But they don't move me like listening to Cui Jian. If in hearing him I were to think that his words were nonsense words like in Jabberwocky then I don't think that I would respond to the songs in nearly the same way that I do.

And yet I am less able to come at the actual meaning of the words than I am in Jabberwocky.

In all this I know I am not alone. Ask any kid listening to heavy metal music, or most any rock, what the song is about and they won't usually be able to tell you. But they listen to the words, sing along and probably wouldn't listen many times to an instrumental version of the song. Same goes for the upper crust listening to opera, be it Italian, German or whatever language. Even English operas are mighty hard to follow, yet I wouldn't even begin to sit through it without the vocals. But those very vocals are only bearable because I know there is MEANING buried there. Buried beyond my grasp most of the time, but still it is there.

And while I bask in the assurance that something, be it a song or my life, is meaningful, my understanding is not really necessary. Understanding would be a bonus, but it really isn't essential. The assurance of meaningfulness is primary.

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