My halfway house
Here is my confession: I've found a "pop" artist who bridges my elitist preferences with the rest of the culture to which I belong.
Forgive me. I have already broken one of my rules and am about to break another. In the contexts of articles and reviews—in essence, non-literary nonfiction—direct address and meta-narration are almost always unacceptable. I usually yell aloud at the writer who employs these devices. So, reader, bear with me, please, as I tell you about this article, which I wrote several times before this version. I'm not talking about revision; I'm talking about wholesale change.
I decided, several weeks ago, to issue myself a challenge. I decided to designate these autumn months as happy music time—challenging, because it was such a radical diversion from my usual immersion in wistful, slow, reflective, minor-chorded, nasal-breathing-man music, and of all seasons, autumn puts me in an independently-labeled, sadsack-music frame of mind. Even as I accepted this challenge, somewhere deep inside my down-tempo soul, I whimpered in the manner of a Xanax addict entering detox. Thus began my experiment with what I'll call, from here on out, pop music.
Since I own no substantial selection of pop music, I've been listening to non-publicly-funded radio. The seek button on my car stereo has felt human touch for the first time. I've scanned the radio and listened to anything that's upbeat, commercial, Billboard singles chart-ish. This has gone on for two weeks, and I've found myself not much more eager to listen to pop music now than I was when I began. But rather than quitting the program entirely, and for the sake of this article, I decided that I would try to understand both my reasons for taking on this challenge and my ongoing lack of enthusiasm for pop music.
As I see it, my job here is to talk about the music that I'm listening to and enjoying and to set forth its merits with the hope that you might find some new music to enjoy. At the same time, I'm writing, informal as it is, an essay, and the essayist's task, in any context, is "to essay": "to test, to try," to engage in honest self-reflection and test my worldview against the subject at hand. (The subject at hand is the music of Trent Dabbs, which I'll get to momentarily.)
Rather than figure out why I enjoy Trent's music, I spent hours and various revisions attempting to justify my distaste for pop music—analyzing the elements of pop, the merits and demerits of entertainment and commercialism, the lack of stated and implied meaning in mass-consumed media. But that, I finally realized, is not my job, and, frankly, I'm tired of that kind of thinking, which I learned to do and became comfortable with once my musical preferences began taking shape 20 years ago. Whether I'm discussing Pink or the Red House Painters, Jay-Z or Jay Farrar, I'm going to find things to criticize and things to praise. I'm not a musicologist. And I have no interest in being an increasingly crotchety, isolated cynic who always finds things to decry in pop culture.
I watch Survivor and sometimes read USA Today, but when it comes to music, I get territorial. Well, since I'm trying to be honest here, I become not so much territorial as disdainful. Even if I recognized it, I would never have confessed it before: my love for independent music has had to do, as much as anything, with my felt need to knock down what's popular and mass-consumed. But, as I realize now, I don't need to do that. I'm tired of the cultural and critical bemoaning—I'm willing now to state that it's a matter of preference, and that I'm in the relative minority, and that there's nothing inherently special or valuable about artistic minorities.
This is where Trent Dabbs' music enters the conversation. His music, much like a lot of pop music, tends to feature simple, up-tempo rhythms and melodies; a reliable verse-chorus organization; brevity; simple instrumentation; and a lyrical focus on love, loss, and relationships. In my pantheon of great musical voices, Trent's position in the top three is firm and secure—his voice, itself, is a principle, an idea. He could sing the theme song to "Charles in Charge," "The Love Boat" or "Blossom," and I would feel transported. His songs' production quality is impeccable, occasionally using pianos and strings to accentuate and lift his vocals. And though he often sings about relationships, whether the fictional or autobiographical, he manages to do so in a way that's relatable and, thus, meaningful. Rather than being himself, he's willing to be all of us, which runs contrary to the common wisdom that authenticity means just being yourself. Trent seems to understand that the best way to connect with his audience is to sing beyond himself, to sing on the level of idea, meaning, worldview, principle. In other words, his music is transformative.
I spent an entire hour on a Friday night watching "Ghost Whisperer," and try as I might to suspend disbelief and imaginatively engage with the characters portrayed by Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy, I could not. But I watched because I knew that Trent's song "Inside These Lines" would be used at some point. Unfortunately, that point was 45 minutes in. But when his song finally did come on, it was, to use the word again, transformative. Because of his soundtrack, and because his lyrics spoke of the lines we draw in relationships that destroy our ability to empathize and understand, that enable us to drift apart without realizing it—
How could we watch it stay the same
for all this time and just be fine?
It's okay to see where we are and where we should be,
but are we gonna find ourselves inside these lines?
Circling the meaning
with the lines we've drawn—
we're not believing
—I was finally able to relate to the characters. Because he sang on the level of principle, I was finally able to connect to the specific narratives of the characters, which I had theretofore been unable to relate to. I felt connected to these characters. My experience with their fictional lives had been transformed as a direct result of Trent's music.
On his upcoming album (Inside These Lines, which drops in January, but you can stream the songs on his website), his deeper meaning is evident. Though his lyrics tell stories, they function as a means to raise and discuss ideas and principles, the worldview issues to which we all relate. In the opening track, the poppy and upbeat "Wake-Up Call," he introduces the idea of mistaking what we want for what we need, and the inexplicable goodness of being found by someone who knows what's best for us:
Have you known about me all this time?
My love, what a sweet surprise.
You came along when I was counting shoestrings,
watching movies waiting to be in them,
worried that I'd never find the right scene—
until you walked right in."
Moreover, I trust Trent; he's a reliable narrator because he refuses to offer platitudes, to make unrealistic assessments about either the difficulties or pleasures of relationship. His songs are full of good theology, and though he's not trying to write the Bible into three-minute songs or force analogies, it's clear that he wants his songs to communicate truth. In "Your Side Now," he sings of our Adamic instinct to hide from each other; in "Rain or Shine," our compulsion to run from intimacy; in "Wishful Thinking," our deep need for an honest assessment of our condition:
Somebody's gonna tell me
that I'm out of line now,
but I don't wanna hear
that brighter days are just around.
Now my love belongs to the sky.
I guess I wasn't
made to tell everyone goodbye.
Trent is, to put a point on it, using elements of pop music to sing eschatologically and redemptively to the widest audience possible. He sings about both what things are like and what they will be like. These are, in a way, songs of confession and supplication.
So here is my realization, and my confession. I like Trent's music for a number of reasons, but in my autumn music challenge, his music offers me a form of the genre that I genuinely like, and in doing so, I feel connected to the larger culture. I get to lay down the burdens of cultural criticism and self-justification and simply enjoy. And though I've not exactly traded in my musical Xanax for Ecstasy, I've found in Trent a good halfway house, a bridge between the misguided elitism of my preferences and the rest of the culture to which I belong.
I've been listening to Trent for over a decade, and I've seen a shift in his music from "my kind of music" to widely accessible, even radio-friendly. I remember bemoaning this shift years ago and feeling, somehow, a bit of betrayal. I didn't understand the choice, and I worried that his artistic integrity had begun to crumble. But the mistake I made, as I've done in so many other areas of my life, was to confuse intensity with profundity. I don't know whether my autumn music challenge will turn into a regular, genuine enjoyment of pop music, but it has helped me to identify and name my arrogance and self-righteousness—and little else is more valuable, or profound, than that.