ONLY NOISE: Songs From Abroad

The plan was as simple as it was unprepared; utilize my two-week vacation in Paris and the UK to discover new music, catch some live shows, and, well…write about it. It would be a piece of cake (or, as the French say, a piece de cake). What I didn’t expect was that my innate aversion to planning anything while on vacation – even so much as Googling what concert to attend that night – was far stronger than my desire to potentially write off my entire trip (hiiiii IRS).

You see, I’m a big fan of the “stumble-upon;” those situations you find yourself in by complete accident. Like that time in 2013, when I somehow managed to wind up at a makeshift punk concert. In a cemetery. Attended by patients of a nearby psychiatric hospital and their families. You just can’t plan this stuff.

I like to think I have a particular knack for “stumbling-upon,” in part because I am a nosy journalist who is perpetually eavesdropping and looking for leads. The other part being my inability to read maps or best any skill related to cardinal directions. You’d be amazed at the things you can find when it’s taken you nine years to realize that Seventh Avenue turns into Varick Street, for instance.

Instead of making a thorough agenda to catch live local music, I would let the music find me. I would leave the details of this vacation up to fate – a concept I absolutely do not believe in, but often pretend I do for romantic purposes. Like Baudelaire’s flâneur, I would “walk the city in order to experience it;” though conceivably in less chic duds than the French poet, who rocked a cravat with the best of ‘em.

Despite my brief and faux dependence on “fate,” I did not magically stumble upon a small and dingy jazz club in the 18th arrondissement, or a searing disco dancehall in Belleville. I didn’t even see one accordion the whole time I was in Paris. What le fuck? Was the music angle of my trip stamped out for good? Not exactly…

There was one thing I hadn’t considered while embarking on my journey: music is unavoidable. It’s actually impossible to go anywhere without hearing something – a car radio blaring, a subway busker, a woman singing on the balcony next door. Or, in my case, a variety of mundane and accidental situations that perhaps don’t have the headline power of “In-patient Punks at Graveyard,” but are memorable nonetheless.

So here are my travel scraps; my sonic sampling platter that may seem unremarkable, but will always signify those two lovely weeks spent alone and abroad. The first notable event was a result of my traveling trademark: getting horribly lost. For like, five hours. During this unintentional excursion I somehow managed to wind up smack dab in the Paris Gay Pride Parade. Twice. Two times, separated by two hours, I turned a corner, and was wedged in a river of half-naked bodies covered in glitter and sweat. Not so bad, you say…unless you’re claustrophobic, such as myself.

Naturally music was blaring from every parade float, and there were moments when the mass of limbs felt like one big, mobile dance party. The playlist? Tous Américains. There was a strange call-and-response adaptation of Del Shannon’s 1961 number, “My Little Runaway,” a healthy dose of Riri, and 4 Non Blondes’ only hit, “What’s Up,” shouted by a throng of women holding hand-painted signs. My personal favorite parade song, however, was the Adele vs. Eurythmics mash-up that blared down Rue de Rivoli. The smash-hit hybrid expertly entwined Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This.” (According to the Internet, this version is called “Rolling In Sweet Dreams.”) The mash-up was oddly stirring, and admittedly gave me chills considering the context. The mash-up was empowering – which is a sentence I thought I’d never write.

Because I often experience music in a public sphere (concerts, clubs, and now parades), it is easy to forget that some of my most prized musical discoveries transpired in a private setting. So many songs and artists have come to my attention at small house parties, in the passenger seat of a car, or in this case, sitting in my French friend Mathieu’s petit apartment the day after the accidental parade attendance, playing that age-old game of “what should we listen to?”

This was tricky – Mathieu and I have diametrically opposing tastes in music. He makes beats and loves chart-topping rap. We also barely speak each other’s language. Fortunately, sharing and enjoying music has no linguistic boundary. The most polarizing aspect in this is exchange was the taste barrier; there’s something about playing music for someone with a different sonic palate that suddenly makes you question all of the songs you love. Perhaps it is a flaw of the over-empathetic, but I begin to hear my beloved music through their ears, predicting all of the things they might dislike about it. I squirmed while playing him Suicide (super accessible), Pavement, and Maribou State, and Mathieu seemed…politely disinterested. “Ok,” I said (which is fortunately the same in French), “your turn.”

Mathieu’s offering was the Belgian Congolese rapper Damso, who’s 2017 LP Ipséité struck me with its equal propensity for darkness and melody. Naturally I have no fucking clue what Damso is rapping about (though Mathieu assures me he is one of the few “self-deprecating” rappers), I can enjoy his music without the burden of words. Ipséité has been on heavy rotation ever since I left Europe.

Thinking back a few years, I realize that every time I visit Paris Mathieu manages to turn me on to at least one intriguing rap artist. In 2013 it was the oddball South African Okmalumkoolkat, and now, it’s Damso. I’d like to think that I’ve enlightened my friend to some more guitar-based tunes in turn – but I highly doubt it.

If Paris taught me I could be tenderized by a Top 40 mash-up and moved by a rapper I can’t understand, the UK would reveal far darker truths. Namely: my disturbing and newfound affection for DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean.” DNCE is the dance-rock, Jonas Brothers’ spinoff group formed by Joe Jonas, drummer Jack Lawless, Cole Whittle, and JinJoo Lee in 2015.

Jonas was ostensibly the group’s sole namesake, just as 2015’s “Cake By The Ocean” was their only single verging on, dare I say, a quality tune. The song, or, as I like to call it, assault weapon, is terminally catchy. If Katy Perry’s “Chained To The Rhythm” is an earworm, “Cake” is an ear viper, wiping out every other song in your brain with its venom. The glittering, cross-genre (disco, Broadway musical… calypso?) hit has plagued me for the past five days.  FIVE DAYS of non-stop, constant rotation. I’m beginning to worry I have brain damage as a result, as repeating “Ya ya ya ya ya ya” too many times must surely stunt cellular growth. Should my cognitive abilities be compromised – should I suddenly manifest a secret adoration for Joe Jonas – I will know whom to blame: British Top 40 radio.

“Cake By The Ocean” bombarded every bus, convenience store, and cab I was in. It was following me (like a malicious viper!), slowly poisoning my eardrums, trying to dismantle my precious collection of “good music.” Jonas and Co. threatened to undo years of “good taste” with one insanely catchy song that on paper, I would hate. Those bastards.

They say when you travel alone, you “learn about yourself.” While this may be true, it doesn’t account for the kinds of things you learn. Sure, I learned that I can in fact read maps, sleep anywhere, and have half-assed conversations with my high school-level French. But I also learned that deep inside me, there is a dark, shameful little place that loves, and I mean LOVES the song “Cake By The Ocean.” And that is something I can’t unlearn.

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