Hanif Abdurraqib’s monthly column, Notes on Pop, muses on the relationship between songs and memory. Read more here.
During my craft talk about poems and sound, I play small parts of songs or music videos. I’m giving away the secret here, but it’s to distract from the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or, I do know what I’m talking about, but I can’t articulate it in any way that makes sense outside of the hamster wheel of my own brain. In some spaces, there is the assumption that anyone who writes poems wants to talk about the writing of them in front of people, and is equipped to do so. But some of us are just fumbling around dark rooms, occasionally lucky enough to find a light switch. And so, to not give away my fumbling, when I give a craft talk, I play songs. I play spirituals and gospel, and I play the rap songs that have sampled the spirituals and gospel. To talk about the magic trick of pace—of suggesting a big moment only to later reveal an even bigger moment—I play the iconic video of the Who performing “Baba O’Riley.” The one you’ve maybe seen, where the intro swells and swells until it feels like it could fill an entire stadium, and you might think, How can we ever climb atop this? But then Pete Townshend tosses his tambourine, steps back from the microphone, and windmills his arm around his guitar and shakes his ass in white pants while Roger Daltrey holds a microphone to the heavens with both hands.
But first, I play HAIM’s “Want You Back.” A specific part, around the 2:20 mark. All of the instruments drop out for about fifteen seconds and all that remains is the layering of voices, singing out “just know / that I want you / back” before the drums enter and the song rebuilds itself from the vocals up. In the talk, the point is about silence, I think. Or the point I’m trying to make is about how the voice itself isn’t the instrument. That language is the instrument and voice is just the vehicle, like a speaker or an amplifier. The point is about silence and the things we deem as percussion. How, along the landscape of silence, any sound that interrupts can be percussive. I make the point by pulling up a poem that has one word drowning in the otherwise white space of a page. That’s percussion, I say. In the poem “Katy,” Frank O’Hara writes, “I am never quiet / I mean silent,” and I assume people who have been lonely enough or isolated enough know the difference. Percussion can be even the gentlest interruption. Here’s a concrete example I give: two people on the telephone, near the end of a conversation, when the line between them falls into the depths of soundlessness. Even one person saying the words “I love you” is percussive. All our affections, coming on the backs of drums.