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In Defense of Good Music

By Jack MapelLentz ‘22

Genres: the quest to fulfill humans’ insatiable desire to sort everything; to quantify. One might think that pop music would be the most, well, popular, right? Think again: rap and hip-hop, as I’m sure you’re all well aware, have taken the world by storm. The vast majority of kids don their headphones and queue up some Juice WRLD, Trippie Redd, or Lil Uzi Vert.

I, too, as I write this, am listening to a masterpiece. Yet, if I had to guess, I’m sure that none of you have heard of it: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. Few other albums or artists — and few other things, in general — can etherealize my emotions anywhere near as eloquently as Justin Vernon’s aching falsetto and exquisitely enigmatic lyrics.

Alas, you have never heard of him; however, I know one person that has, and you may have heard of him: Kanye West. After hearing Vernon’s revolutionary use of Auto-Tune in the song “Woods” off Bon Iver’s 2009 EP Blood Bank, he crowned him his “favorite living artist,” saying that “I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye.” Listen to his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — considered by many to be one of his finest LPs — and one of its highlights, “Lost In The World,” is constructed around that very song; it opens with a direct sample: “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind.”

Another example of the close link between rap and this other music, though less famous: Sufjan Stevens, who crafts everything from the bittersweet-acoustic Carrie and Lowell to the sweeping multi-instrumentation of Illinois and omnipresent synthesizers on The Age of Adz, is a favorite of Childish Gambino, who remixed the whole of Illinois in college under his original mcDJ alter-ego. Similarly, Kendrick Lamar, consistently cited as one of rap’s greatest artists ever, sampled one of Stevens’s tracks on a song off To Pimp a Butterfly.

Try to classify Stevens or Bon Iver into any genre, though, and you’ll invariably fail. Even Kanye, as of late, evades any traditional classification — a rapper releasing a gospel album? Perhaps such tendencies are what make lesser-known artists like Bon Iver and Stevens worth listening to: the way they constantly defy categorization. And they do this while perpetually evolving. Though many people have tried to attach labels to these artists — “alternative” is often tacked onto their work — could Bon Iver’s electronic-esque 22, A Million and recent i,i be any farther from the wind-whipped wintery guitar of For Emma, Forever Ago and the glistening horns of Bon Iver, Bon Iver?

Great artists — even songs — are unclassifiable. Yet such music’s evasiveness of labeling is, in a way, what makes it so meaningful: it exists to capture that indistinguishable, fleeting feeling into reality, and in doing so, it blossoms into an art as powerful and legitimate as any other. Rap/hip-hop can be quite magnificent in its own right — and I’m not detracting from its greatness. No single genre, though, can capture the full spectrum of emotion in the way that the un-genre can. The best music, I’ve found, has a tendency to fall between the cracks. In the end, this is all to say a simple thing: the conventional rap that’s come to define so much of today’s music is not the only music. It’s a tour de force in its own way, but it — being a genre — simply cannot stretch so deeply into the swelling well of emotion that music unbound by genre reaches so artfully. This other music exists, too, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. Maybe this is far-fetched, but it might just change your life. It certainly changed mine.

Bon Iver Album Cover

Bon Iver's 22, A Million Album Cover