About a decade ago, I was on vacation with a group of friends, and I took the opportunity to lay out on a lounger and listen to one of my favorite songs of all time, Blackstar’s “Respiration.”
Lulled into a false sense of security by the serenity of my surroundings, I closed my eyes and immersed myself fully within the universe of the song. The addictive guitar riff; the hypnotic Spanish interludes; the meditative call and response of the song’s chorus (”Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine / Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline”).
Around the time the song’s third verse rolled around, the recognizable sound of snickering began to bleed in over my headphones. Suddenly aware of my very public surroundings, I stirred from my bubble to see three of my friends gesturing towards me and laughing. “What are you laughing at?” I asked them, preemptively self-conscious about whatever it was I’d done to embarrass myself.
“Dude, you look like you’re listening to porn or something,” one of my friends replied, reigniting uproarious laughter among the group.
Humiliating though this story is, I relay it to offer a concrete example of the impact I believe music should have at its finest. Indeed, escapism is but one of many reasons to listen to music. But when a song is transcendent enough to help you forget your surroundings entirely—to mute your internal monologue for even a moment—the experience is an indescribable high that is impossible to stop chasing.
Given my chosen profession as a music writer, it’s suboptimal that “indescribable” is the best adjective I can marshal to illuminate this feeling. Describing things, so to speak, is the job. Lacking the capacity to do so, I’m no good to anyone; the loose equivalent of a recreational drug advocate trying to explain to a lifelong teetotaler what it feels like to trip on LSD. It’s not that I don’t have the vocabulary, either; it’s that words themselves feel petty. It’s the disheartening realization that, so often, the feeling of listening to music is too metaphysical to communicate.
Consider, once again, the aforementioned “Respiration.” Even after recounting a mortifying story to explain the emotional response this song stirs within me, I know, deep down, I still didn’t do it justice. Supposing someone had never heard the song; or worse yet, they love it as much as I do but have an entirely different reaction to it based on its bleak lyrics. I imagine my words would ring even more hollow than they already do.
Overwhelmingly, the problem I’m describing here stems from a disconnect I’ve often felt between my motivations for being a music writer and my motivations for being a music fan. While wearing the hat of the former, it’s my responsibility, in part, to set aside the profound emotional connections I have with songs to synthesize trends across them, unpack lyrics, and analyze technical minutiae. As a fan, all I want to do is seek out the types of songs that move me beyond reason and make all of this high-minded analysis feel silly.
Further complicating matters, it’s precisely these types of songs that made me want to write about music. I’d hear a work of beauty, like Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters,” develop an intensely personal relationship with it, and instantly feel like it was borderline inhumane not to share this song with as many people as possible. The notion that anyone in the world had yet to experience the song as I had—as a personification of unconditional love, marked by vocal textures so stunning it physically hurts—felt criminal.
Yet, because sharing cherished music with others is such a vulnerable act—particularly when you’re an immature teenager trying to tell all your similarly immature friends to listen to a song that starts with D’Angelo sensually moaning—I eventually decided to sidestep friendly recommendations and start a blog instead.
My blog lent me the veneer of credibility, effectively shielding me against vulnerability—and giving me a platform to hide behind. Following the creation of my blog, whenever I advocated for a song I loved, I wasn’t doing so as Hershal—an insecure 20-year-old whose heart would break if his crush didn’t unreservedly love the song he’d sent her—I was doing so as “hiiwiip” the purportedly objective blogger with a shred of perceived legitimacy. “Hiiwiip”—I wish I were joking—is an embarrassing blogger pseudonym I created for myself that stood for “Hershal-It-Is-What-It-Is-Pandya.” Please kill me.
Finally free to gush about the music I loved without restraint, I wrote sophomoric musings about the daily 2010 discoveries that stuck with me, like J. Cole’s “Lights Please” and Aloe Blacc’s “I Need A Dollar.” To give you an idea of exactly how bad my writing was at the time, here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote that same year about Drake’s “Over”:
“So, everyone always asks me what my opinion is on Drake. Well, to tell you the truth…I think he’s cool. I enjoy his music. When his songs comes on the radio, I don’t turn off the station or change the channel. He makes good mainstream music.”
Looking back, the best compliment I could give myself at the time was that I was unpretentious. “I love basically any music that sounds good to me,” I wrote in the “About Me” section of the blog. “To understand why this music is so good, you have to listen to it,” I wrote in a whopping four of the fifteen blurbs comprising my top albums of 2011 list. (For the record: The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, Kendrick’s Section 80, and the eponymous albums by James Blake and SBTRKT).
Was any of this good criticism? Absolutely not. Was it more honest than the writing I do now? A large part of me can’t shake the nagging feeling that it was. For all the leaps my prose has taken since 2011, I haven’t written a sentence gorgeous enough to communicate the piercing tone of Frank Ocean’s falsetto, the contagiousness of a JAY-Z boast, or the borderline religious experience that is the bridge of this Sampha remix. Truthfully, as I wrote in 2011, you do just have to listen to understand.
So, the question remains: Where does this leave me as an individual who, for the moment, has no plans to stop writing about music? It’s hard to say. The predicament I’m in, wherein the connection I form with source material increases in direct correlation with my desire to write about it—as well as my utter inability to do so—seems irreconcilable. It brings to mind perhaps my favorite quote of all time about love, from the classic 1995 film, Before Sunrise:
“I believe, if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us. Not you or me, but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone; sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Maybe I’ll never be able to explain to my asshole friends why listening to “Respiration” allows me to root myself in the present in a way that virtually nothing else does; why I was making those goofy faces that they clowned a decade ago. Who cares, really? The beauty of the exercise is in the attempt.