How Justin Bieber Teaches Appreciation of Abstract Music

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The essence of Justin Bieber’s music can be felt across many styles

Whitney Xu and Brian Culligan

 

There is no doubt that we live in a society which values music as essential to everyday life. There are few who could even imagine a world without this sonic companion by their side, serving a multitude of purposes too many to count. However, there is a great divide amongst music fans when it comes to preferred genre. In fact, opinions on this matter have become so strong that individual stylings are generally considered vastly different art forms. With so much focus on personal taste, many refuse to acknowledge the inherent unity throughout all music, instead shunning all that does not fit into their comfort zone. Whether one is a casual listener, or a dedicated musician, to acknowledge only one genre is to force away endless potential for inspiration, often in the least likely of places. To maximize the value of one of the most potent art forms on Earth, the artificial barriers of genre must be temporarily disregarded. To prove the universal enjoyability of music as a whole, MDO will identify the commonalities between two albums seemingly incomparable, and on opposite ends of the popularity spectrum: Justin Bieber’s recent smash-hit, Purpose, and the scarcely heard of, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World by The Caretaker.

 

Justin Bieber’s most recent release needs no introduction. Purpose is a groundbreaking album both in his own career, and in the world of pop music. Bieber is well known for producing sugary teen pop, laden with romantic promises of young love with vaguely sexual undertones and backed by upbeat, synthetic instrumentation. However, Purpose offers nothing of overdramatic or amorous substance; the lyrics are devoid of almost any emotion. Instead, the album’s true merit lies in its high musical quality. The instrumentation has evolved into something more sophisticated, perhaps reflecting Bieber’s desire to present himself as an adult. Though his choruses are repetitive, they are not annoyingly so; the listener falls into a groove of this repetition and is disappointed when the song ends. His voice is always kept at a fascinatingly constant decibel, no matter how high the note is, which ultimately adds a gentle and soothing quality to the album. Dream pop elements float across the tracks–gentle bursts of acoustic guitar, echoey background vocals, and faint radio signals add layers to a soft soundscape that the listener sinks into comfortably. Another element that makes the album so likable is, obviously, the melodic merit of the tracks. Nearly every song is written in a major key, matched with “deep” enough lyrics to create a complex mix of cheerful and melancholy. “Love Yourself” is the paragon of this type of song. It’s perfect to listen to while leaning one’s head against a car window; it’s not too depressing because of the uplifting melody, but it still makes one ponder the things that are troubling one in life.

 

On the other hand, The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, has received far less widespread recognition, despite being an innovative masterpiece. James Kirby, the musician behind The Caretaker, sampled 78s and old vinyls to create an intriguing collection of essentially parlor music. An incessant crackling static permeates each track, immediately submerging the listener in a soporific pool of nostalgia. If this were a soundtrack to a film, it would be in black and white. A distinct aura of creepiness is also prevalent through the listening experience. Though it seems impossible to compare Purpose to An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, there are more similarities between the two albums than one may realize. The Caretaker utilizes repetition in every track of An Empty Bliss, looping melodies played with antique pianos and horns, creating an almost hypnotic effect. With no vocals accompanying any of the songs, each track can be fully appreciated for its purely musical qualities, similar to Purpose. While the music may conjure up images of abandoned mental wards, there is something incredibly soothing about the hazy sounds of each scratchy track. Like Bieber, The Caretaker plucks the listener from the mundane world and places him or her in a groove, and as the melodies overtake the brain, one may start feel nostalgia for something that was never personally experienced.

 

No matter how different two pieces may sound, the fundamental workings of music are the same across every genre. This means that the inherent qualities of the songs one enjoys listening to are almost certainly present in other stylings, just in different forms. The brain latches onto a catchy melody and steady repetition in music, and Justin Bieber capitalizes on this with Purpose. Audiences are comforted by the predictability of his songs, and made happy upon hearing a tune they can sing along to, which will be stuck in their head for days on end. It may seem that these qualities are only present in popular music, however this is not the case. An Empty Bliss, while seemingly inaccessible at first listen, has the same soothing qualities as Purpose; in both albums, fairly simple melodies repeat predictably, allowing the listener to relax into what he or she is hearing. Melody and repetition are among the core principles which make up music, so even the most abstract of stylings possess them. Also among these core principles is the ability of music to bring humanity together, creating a close-knit community. This art form has long been a powerful bonding force, giving a unique connectedness to those who share the same tastes. For this reason, many gravitate towards popular works in order to enjoy them with the masses, and keep away from more abstract music to avoid feelings of isolation. It is true that while listening to Purpose, one is sharing an experience with a greater number of people; however, delving into the underground community provides an even deeper bond with the few it is shared with. Upon connecting with other appreciators of a more obscure album such as An Empty Bliss, a unique commonality is reached. The act of discovering music for oneself, and encountering others with like taste, is equally, if not more rewarding than joining the bandwagon of the widely appreciated. Music is truly universal, and no key aspect found in popular music cannot also be enjoyed in a multitude of other genres.

 

Although Purpose contains lyrical anthems which leave stadiums singing along, and there is not a syllable to be heard in An Empty Bliss, both of these works manage to strike similar personal and emotional appeal in their own ways. Each has the strong presence of deep sentiment; only the method by which this sentiment is expressed, and how readily it is identified with, varies. Tracks like “What Do You Mean?”, “Sorry”, and “Love Yourself” possess strong verbal accounts of feelings such as remorse, longing, contemplation, and sincerity, and the relatability of these feelings are what draw countless listeners to become fans of the album. The important thing to remember is that sentiments such as these are not limited to pop music, or even music with lyrics. In fact, there are many parallels in The Caretaker’s work which, with more careful thought, provide an equal, if not greater, sense of emotional appeal. Amidst the steady drifting lullaby of songs such as “Libet’s Delay”, and “Camaraderie at Arm’s Length”, a powerful mood of nostalgia takes over. These vague musical musings manage to trigger vivid memories and feelings that are unique to each listener, and music’s ability to do just this is what has made it beloved by so many since the beginning of time. Full immersion into the album’s soundscapes acts as a key into the subconscious, allowing in images of what the listener holds most special. This music has the power to trigger moods just the same those found on any pop record; the only difference is that with more abstract music such as this, the listener arrives at emotional conclusions on his or her own. Rather than being directly told what the song is about through lyrics, a meaning all the more personal is able to be arrived at on one’s own power through consideration of what the song sounds like to him or her. This deeply individual connection is at the heart of what makes music so special. Humans from all walks of life fundamentally have the same feelings, and because of this all forms of music possess similar themes, in varying packages. Although abstract music, or music of any genre that one does not usually listen to, may be harder to identify with at first listen, all of the sentiments conveyed in pop music are present, and resonate on an even deeper level when discovered naturally.

 

While it may seem daunting to venture away from the well-established and widely-appreciated pop genre, and delve into stylings more abstract and uncommon, doing so provides a satisfaction characteristic to all music, with an enriching twist. Although Justin Bieber has most likely never been associated with such an obscure choice, MDO hopes it has opened its reader’s eyes and ears to a new world of music.