In college, I worked at the campus radio station. Sorting through bins of new music, I unwrapped CDs with a fierceness, tearing the impossibly tiny, meticulously folded plastic wrap with my teeth. These were albums from cool bands, bands that made music described in snappy three-sentence blurbs on the back of the jewel case; “a wall of sound,” “jarringly symphonic,” “atonal,” “ambient.” Bands whose concerts demanded earplugs — the good kind, the ones musicians use so they can gather every bass and high note without going completely deaf. Bands with conceptual album art.
I liked those bands and listened to those albums, said thoughtful things about their craft and stood with my friends, smoking cigarettes in the Cleveland cold outside half-empty venues by dark of night, waiting for the next set to start, caring deeply about music that — and this was a thing we said, and meant, back then — “defied genre.”
I graduated from college in 2010. And yesterday night, since I’m a middle-aged woman living in a 26-year-old’s body, I went to Zumba class, and in the company of several other uncoordinated ladies, with a slick film of sweat coating my face and, inexplicably, the insides of my elbows, I totally lost my shit while listening to “Body Language.”
In case you don’t listen to your local mainstream hip-hop radio station, “Body Language” is basically an Usher song with 10 seconds of Tinashe samples, and the unidentifiable support (producer, or something?) of a person/corporate entity named Kid Ink. It’s catchy and beat-driven and easy to sing along to, and while the content is mostly about how talking is for sissies and nonverbal consent is the best, this song is the only song I want to listen to.
Walls of sound have their place, and I value that music for what it is — it’s art, individuals coming together to make interesting, compelling, deliberate sounds, sequences that demand your attention and ask something of you as a listener. In college, I half liked it and half felt like I was supposed to, and the net result was an interest that I simply don’t have anymore, passions that have dulled into a phase. Noise rock fades, but Top 40 hip-hop is forever.
So back in Zumba class, Usher croons and the beat rides and I punch the air in front of me while awkwardly jogging in place, and it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in days. College radio and artistic achievement and personal politics be damned — I just want to do Zumba and listen to Usher.