Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I, like many Americans, found myself drinking beer in an airport and watching the Seattle Seahawks dribble piss down their legs while getting mercilessly thrashed by the Dallas Cowboys (who, let the record show, I cannot stand. Especially Terrell Owens, the biggest douchebag in all of football). Obviously, the game wasn’t going to hold my attention (fortunately, my weekend football viewing was salvaged by the Oregon Ducks’ utter humiliation of the Oregon State Beavers in the 112th Civil War game. Nothing says “ass whoopin'” like giving up 65 points on your home field), so I started chatting with fellow travelers, as is my wont. Imagine my surprise when I found, sitting to my right and drinking a glass of red wine, none other than famed musical pathologist Rebecca Mellor. I have transcribed our conversation here and offer it to you now as a fruitful discussion of Portishead’s Third album.
Chorpenning: What the hell is a musical pathologist?
Dr. Mellor: Well, I analyze people’s listening habits and assess how their musical choices are impacting their physical and emotional health.
C: So you’re saying that listening to shitty music can be physically bad for people.
Dr. M: It absolutely is.
C: What’s the worst music a person can listen to and why?
Dr. M: Any of what I call the Diluted Genres: soft rock, smooth jazz, blues played by white mid-western teenagers. Accepting a watered-down musical experience trains you to accept watered-down emotional experiences and can lead to a mental breakdown if the cycle isn’t broken.
C: So Kenny G, say, dulls your senses? Like an opiate?
Dr. M: Exactly. But an opiate for your soul. It makes you care less about your music and soon, you won’t care about anything.
C: How would you place emo on that scale? I don’t think of it as watered down necessarily, but it’s so calculated and trite. It can’t be good for you.
Dr. M: You’re right. It’s a dilution of rock music – where a true rock artist might express social concern or any kind of awareness of the world around them, an emo “musician” is dangerously wrapped up in themselves. Mix that with the fact that the bulk of emo is targeted toward teenagers and you have a recipe for an epidemic of solipsism. Walk into any high school in America right now if you doubt that.
C: So what do you do about it? I mean, emo bands are huge. There are even emo bands now that claim to hate emo, like My Chemical Romance. And they’re not helping anybody.
Dr. M: They’re clearly emo.
Dr. M: The good news is that there are alternatives, if one is willing to find them. It’s important to have good music when you’re a teenager because that’s a very confusing time of life. You need to find music that not only reflects your confusion but offers some hope that it’s temporary, and it has to do that without sugarcoating everything in platitudes like “Everything is going to be all right.”
C: Because everything can’t possibly be all right.
Dr. M: Exactly. (There’s a pause; the bar watches as the Seahawks turn the ball over again. We order another round) How old are you?
C: I’ll be 29 in January.
Dr. M: So you were… fourteen when Portishead’s Dummy came out?
C: Yeah. Wow. I love that album.
Dr. M: Did you own it when you were fourteen?
C: Unfortunately, no. I was still weening myself off of shitty music back then. I did own the first Beck album though.
Dr. M: Imagine how much easier your adolescence would have been if you had Dummy.
C: I see what you’re getting at. That album has an earned sadness to it.
Dr. M: It provides a catharsis that isn’t as cheap as you might get from screaming about black parades.
C: No shit. Hey, have you heard Portishead’s new one?
Dr. M: (nods) I’m writing a book about Portishead; their music is crucial to addressing the emo epidemic that’s plaguing this country right now. Bands like Portishead and The Hold Steady are two sides of the same coin – the yin and the yang of a cure for the shallow listening that is leading so many of us to shallow living.
C: Well put. Portishead does provide a great soundtrack for brooding. But it’s still musically very beautiful.
Dr. M: Beth Gibbons is one of the most under-rated singers of the last 20 years. And you’re right, their music does create an atmosphere in which it would be appropriate to wrestle with one’s personal demons, but it never tries to provide an answer for the listener. Take “Nylon Smile” for example. The lines “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you” are delivered with a sad sweetness that no emo singer could ever hope to duplicate.
C: And that song is followed by “The Rip,” which is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard this year.
Dr. M: The whole album goes back and forth between Massive Attack-style electronic music and this sinister sort of psychedelic music; it’s a blending of genres that escapes many emo bands as well. It reflects a deeper understanding of music and gives the album a much richer texture than you’ll find on, say, a Panic at the Disco album. To return to your earlier example of My Chemical Romance – the highest they’ve ever reached musically was on that dreadful Black Parade album and it was still, stylistically speaking, somewhere between bad Queen and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
C: Whereas Third is somewhere between Dummy and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
Dr. M: Precisely. The organ parts on “We Carry On” and “Small” are absolute nods to 60s psychedelic music, not least of which is early Pink Floyd. Third reveals a musical intelligence that propels the listener on a much more satisfying and complex journey than any My Chemical Romance album ever will.
C: Don’t forget that wacky-ass saxophone part on “Magic Doors.” Is it a lack of weirdness that makes emo so harmful?
Dr. M: Not exactly. (sips wine, reflects) Not at all, actually. It’s merely a lack of depth. Not just in the lyrics, which are obviously awful, but in the music as well. Emo music as music acts as though no one has ever played a power-chord before. They don’t know where they’re coming from. Not to get off on a tangent here, but so-called power chords are not chords at all as played by many bands. They’re the root, the fifth, and the octave intervals of a scale and, since the octave is the same note as the root (just an octave higher), it’s not a chord at all. Where was I?
C: You were saying that emo music, not just the lyrics, but the actual music, is lacking in depth.
Dr. M: Absolutely. How mad do you get when someone compares an emo-punk band to The Clash?
C: Fighting mad, of course.
Dr. M: And you’re right to do so. The Clash’s music had many musical reference points – reggae, rockabilly, and The Ramones. Their music reflected those reference points to a T without ever sounding like they were merely copying them. Now, as a counter-example, consider Fall Out Boy. You can tell by listening to them that they like some good music, probably even The Clash, but their music doesn’t take in their influences and synthesize them into something wonderful. Fall Out Boy’s music partially chews its meal and then regurgitates back a mangled, saliva-covered and completely repulsive replica of their influence. The saying is usually “Garbage in, garbage out” but in this case, it’s “Gold in, garbage out.”
M: So obviously, liking good music doesn’t mean you’ll make good music.
Dr. M: Right. Now it just so happens that Beth Gibbons likes good music and makes good music, but I would imagine – and I’ll explore this more in my book – that if you were to sit down and have a conversation with Beth Gibbons it would be a lot better use of your time than spending an hour chatting up the goons in Fall Out Boy.
C: I couldn’t possibly disagree with that. Hey, I gotta get on a plane to Portland, but it was really great talking to you. In short, you’re saying Third is healthy listening for people, yeah?
Dr. M: That’s precisely what I’m saying.
C: Thanks! Can I interview you about other albums in the future?
Dr. M: Any time.