Will Hagle is in the process of inventing Foreground Music.
I didn’t pass the bar, but I know a little bit. Enough to know “No Favors” blasting out of a Kia Soul on Larchmont Ave. in broad daylight is a punishable offense under the noise laws of Los Angeles. The rule clearly states that it’s unlawful to play music “in such a manner as to disturb the peace, quiet, and comfort of neighbor occupants or any reasonable person residing or working in the area.” When Big Sean came on my Kia car radio with the windows down, Larchmont Village could’ve had a reasonable case against me.
We tend to discuss, rate, and review music as if we’re all sitting down with headphones and studying it. The majority of the time, however, we hear music out in the real world while doing other things. Hearing “No Favors” on the radio, or emanating from a passing car, is a different experience than listening to it on I Decided with the intention of reviewing that album for a music publication. The rise of streaming service and ubiquitous access to music has changed the way we process albums. Music, these days, is most often heard in the background. It intrudes upon the public space, or fills our private spaces while we occupy ourselves with other activities. If we’re going to continue rating, ranking, and reviewing albums upon their release, we should take the way they sound in the background into consideration.
An album that sounds good in the background can be judged solely on those merits. Background Music and Regular Music are two separate entities. Background Music refers to any music passively consumed while doing other things. Regular Music refers to any music to which we give our undivided attention. All albums are, by nature, both Background Music and Regular Music. It depends on the context in which they’re played. You can put on The Low End Theory while playing a video game with the sound on, and experience one of the best Background Music albums of all time. You can put the same album on and listen to every word, and the same string of songs transforms into a great Regular Music album. Some albums, of course, function better as Background Music than they do as Regular Music, or vice versa.
I first listened to DAMN. the same way every loser my age did: streaming it the night it leaked while playing Catan. Sometime around track four, we finished making our opening moves. A track or two later, the reviews started pouring in:
“I like it” — Anna, losing on the board but slyly stacking up development card Victory Points.
“Yeah, this is pretty good” — Mike, sipping Mezcal and gunning for the longest road.
“Yeah, it’s good, but it’s basically just background music” — Me, losing, ready to switch off the album and put on Sandy Wexler.
“Yeah” — all of us.
“8.4” — Twitter.
The album remained in the background the next few times I listened to it. I loudly debated whether “DNA.” was the only good song as the rest of the album played out of an Alexa at my brother’s house. Siri interrupted “LUST.” to give me directions as I drove past posters saying “DAMN.” and “DAMN. DAMN. DAMN.” on Glendale Blvd. I barely listened two more times while taking a shower and doing laundry. The album seeped into my subconscious during these passive listens, but it took a while until I sat down and gave it a closer listen as Regular Music.
I’ve since formed an opinion on the album as Regular Music, but the initial Catan squad’s review stands true: DAMN. is good Background Music. Kendrick calls himself a writer, inviting us to judge him in that manner. But since DAMN. is streaming on the internet, most of us are bound to hear the album somewhere in the background, whether we want to or not. Our enjoyment of DAMN.—or any other album—is different when we hear it in the background than it is when we put on headphones and examine every aspect of it. Saying DAMN. is good Background Music is in no way a commentary on the album’s relative goodness or badness as Regular Music. It’s okay to judge a single album in both contexts.
The problem with critiquing an album as Background Music is that our opinions change depending on the scenario in which the music is played. At a recent outdoor function, I put on Captain Barkey’s “Get and No Chat” on my phone and dropped it into an empty Solo Cup to boost the sound. I had listened to the song on the way to work earlier that day and enjoyed it. It was, to me, good Background Music. Midway through the song, I asked if anyone had any request as to what to listen to next. The only request I got was: “Not this.”
The other night, I was playing guitar in my living room and thought it was sounding great. A neighbor soon yelled “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” out their window. An album can be great Background Music in one situation, and terrible Background Music in another. Regular Music doesn’t change as much.
There are plenty of distractions in modern life, and it’s becoming harder to get through an entire album in one close listen. There are too many songs on too many streaming services, and there are plenty of other things to be doing when music is playing in the background. I refer to giving albums our complete attention as “Regular Music,” but really, “Background Music” is becoming the norm. It’s either time for our reviews to acknowledge that.