“One of my cymbal patterns is more rebellious than their entire recorded output, which is just a waste of plastic” – Liam Howlett of the Prodigy on Chumbawamba.

Fred asked a few months ago what people felt was the reason that they listened to pop music – what role it played in their everyday life. The obvious answer is that pop music is for entertainment. It’s unlikely that we’d sustain much interest in music if it didn’t please us in some way. Aside from the entertainment value, though, many would argue that music needs some kind of meaning or message in order to be artistically valid. One of the criticisms most often levelled at the majority of pop music is that it has no meaning; Britney, Fatboy Slim, *NSync and Atomic Kitten “say nothing to me about my life”, to use Morrissey’s explanation. So why do so many people find that Britney et al do say something to them about their lives?

Last night, I watched music television for about 8 hours whilst talking with friends. Not once in that time did I think of any overtly message-based explanation of my enjoyment of a night in front of MTV, MTV2, MTV Base, The Box, VH1, KISS TV… but as I watched I tried to reason why I liked or disliked each song I heard. It’s clearly apparent that we like the majority of our favourite music because we relate it to our own lives in some way, but that doesn’t explain why this particular Eminem compound rhyme means anything to me:

Y’all act like you never seen a white person before
Jaws all on the floor like Pam, like Tommy just burst in the door
And started whooping her ass worse than before they first were divorced
Throwin’ her over furniture…
The Real Slim Shady

As The Real Slim Shady rotated every five minutes on the various channels, that rhyme hit me every time, but why should I care so much about it? Short of amusing Motley Crue and Methods Of Mayhem anecdotes, I couldn’t care less about Pam and Tommy. Eminem could be rapping about fish paste sandwiches or tape-based data backup systems and that rhyme scheme would still have the same effect on me. But this doesn’t fit in with the theory of relating to a song; beyond a point, how can anyone identify so closely to a specific melody or a specific rhythm? My explanation would be that we identify in a different way. A rhythm can’t relate to our lives so we relate it to our love of dancing. The simplest of melodies or rhythms can strike some inexplicable harmony inside us and cause a very similar enjoyment of the music to that caused by the lyrical or literal identification, yet an enjoyment stemming from a much more abstract root.

The more we try to explain it through logical reasoning, the more we find that music can’t be reduced to a science. However hard I try I can’t fully explain what makes me prefer one Destiny’s Child melody to another so I can only guess that it’s a natural instinct or, perhaps more probably, a reaction based on past experience and interaction with melodies and rhythms. This may explain why similar people often like similar music. Hardly a conclusive answer but it does explain Liam Howlett’s reasoning: his cymbals mean a lot more to him than Chumbawamba’s “political” ranting does. Morrissey just manages to stay on the right side of the argument when he refers to “me” and “my life” rather than saying that the music simply “says nothing”. However community-based a musical listening experience becomes, enjoyment is an intensely personal experience. You can hate the Prodigy as much as you want but you won’t change Liam Howlett’s views on Chumbawamba.

If there’s a song you like and you know why you like it let me know why and I’ll see if I can come up with a more definitive and general answer some time in the future.