The Pepsi Challenge is a marketing stunt wherein volunteers are asked to choose between Pepsi and Coke in a blind taste test. The results skew heavily in favor of Pepsi. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a new set of taste tests (some single-sip, some whole-can) suggest that although Pepsi (being sweeter) is preferred upon first sip, Coke (with its more complex “flavor profile”) is preferred in full-can form.
Lately, I’ve had a creeping suspicion that American culture (which unfortunately seems to be rapidly devouring most other cultures) has become first-sip obsessed. In many areas of life, we’re trading in quality for convenience, and experiential complexity for candy-coated immediacy.
Take music, for example.
On my recent trip through Europe, I was plagued at every turn by the sort of hyper-emotive, autotuned, electro-dance-pop that much of the world is so enamored with. I’m not saying “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “We Are Young” are bad songs, but I’ll tell you what: the dance remixes, which are being played not just in the clubs but in grocery stores, restaurants and radio stations internationally and at alarming rates, have been robbed of any element of soulfulness they once possessed.
What do I mean by soulfulness? Well, as Ray Charles said, soul is “when you become part of your song… so that the people really believe every word you’re singing”. A soulful song reaches out and grabs your attention, like a stranger talking directly to you about their personal, emotional life. I think Gotye was on to something when he originally recorded “Somebody That I Used to Know”, but whatever kernel of truth made it believeable has since been remixed, multi-tracked and autotuned right into oblivion.
So why do we love these shells of songs? I would venture to say that we don’t. We take pleasure in them, especially upon first listen, because they are sweet to the ears. They are emphatically, overwhelmingly in tune. They are devoid of all non-musical sounds, like breath, movement, or catches in the throat. They are agreeably inhuman, like airbrushed supermodels . They are so pleasant, so unobtrusive, that they can play in the background while we drive and text and drink Pepsi, and they do not demand our attention.
But I’ll tell you what does demand your attention: every song Ray Charles ever recorded. Ditto The Beatles, in spite of all the ear-candy. And how many great artists have demanded our attention in a way that wasn’t pleasant at all - at least not at first? Billie Holiday. Bob Dylan. Tom Waits. The more pressing question is, how many great artists did strike you as pleasant, within the first ten seconds of the first song of theirs you heard? I’d wager that pleasantness is a common feature of mediocrity, and an uncommon feature of genius.
Imagine you’re in your car, driving and texting and drinking a Pepsi, simmering in a not-unpleasant fog of caffeine and Facebook-induced narcissism, and Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame” comes on the radio. You’ve never heard him, or anything like him. The piano is out of tune. You hear breathing, a creaking piano bench, squeaky fingers on bass strings. His voice is like a thousand years of cigarettes and whiskey and unrequited love. How long does it take you to turn the dial?
Unfortunately for the first-sippers - the Blackberry dads, the Real Housewives of Atlanta, and the whole eat-on-the-run, sleep-when-you’re-dead, one-stop-shop, party-in-the-USA generation – soulfulness, with all of its inherent sorrow and strangeness and black magic, demands our full attention.
Upon posting this, I plan to turn off my computer, throw my phone in a lake, and allow the soulfulness of life to grab me by the hair and shake me, yawning spit and sound into my face. I suggest you do the same.