Of course, once an album reaches the “classic” status, it becomes fair game for hunters set on debunking statuses. Recently, Mark Prindle—a critic whom I deeply respect—took up the shotgun and scorched In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Prindle rated it a mediocre 6 out of 10 and defended the rating by accusing the record of containing generic chord progressions, unbearable singing, nonsensical lyrics, and worst of all, emotional narcissism. His readers have largely concurred with him, even going as far to state that younger generations like the recording because it’s the avant-garde thing to do.
Though the last opinion is one that is only held by fools, the other points are considerable. Suffice it to say that there will always be dissenters who have valid counterpoints that they easily conjure from the given material. Indeed, the first paragraph of this essay itself contains both the naysayer’s view and the fanatic’s view, and really, a foundation for the antithesis is introduced before the actual thesis. That antithesis foundation might be better spotted by an astute reader who had no memory or experience of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea than a seasoned fan or dissenter, for the unknowledgeable reader would more easily struggle understanding how the third sentence—which defines the album’s elements—could lead to the conclusion, which claims that it is an influential masterpiece. That person, as well as those who dismiss the album, might notice that there is a missing link. And undoubtedly, they will ask the same questions as Prindle and his readers: How can this combination of seemingly childish musical elements create a work of genius? How could someone use the same four chords over and over and over again and sing in a nasally high pitched voice and then create a, original, great recording? How could verbal nonsense be emotional?
These questions are valid, but in a larger sense, they are truly a cop-out for an inability to argue. This essay will counter these terms by defining a system of musical critique, countering the previous points, and then applying the system to the album.
Before that system can be applied, however, the album must be cleared of previous charges. The first argument against the record’s greatness is the most common: The chords are too generic to form great songs. In this instance, this accusation is granted with no problem, but it does not seem to be a large negative. These chords have become generic for a reason: Simply, they sound great together. In fact, these progressions and chords have been used in many renowned songs. The G-Em-C-D progression in “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” forms the basis of many other acclaimed tunes—“More than a Feeling,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and even “I Should Have Known Better,” among others. If these songs can be considered brilliant, then there is no reason that “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” shouldn’t.
Still, there is still more to the chord progression accusation. Prindle claims that songs like “Two-Headed Boy” are brought down by their simple progressions that “dominate” the song. This conclusion is far too simplistic and lacks deeper thought. Are chords really the only thing a song offers? Are all songs dominated by just one musical element? People rarely blast the Ramones for their simple, distorted chord progressions when their songs were largely rewrites of each other, or the Who for the simplicity of “My Generation.” The reason for this is that there are numerous elements that create great pieces. What about the rhythm? In the case of “Two-Headed Boy,” the rhythm alone makes for an interesting listen. In addition, the interaction of the voice with the guitar creates a fascinating textural relationship, as the two often differ in rhythm and pitch. The vocals of the song and the relationships they create cannot be ignored.
This brings us to the next point and question: What about his voice? Some people can’t stand it, but there has never been a universal standard to vocal timbre. Yes, Placido Domingo is an amazing tenor, but it doesn’t make an off-pitch, off-kilter voice any less enjoyable—in fact, these elements give it a quality of uniqueness that many pop singers will never achieve. It’s unpleasant at times, yet so interesting. For many, in its awkwardness, the delivery feels more personal. And since when has timbre determined how intervals sound? An arpeggio remains theoretically effective whether it’s played by Isaac Stern on violin or shrieked by a hyena.
Or perhaps people are forgetting the album’s melodies. The pitches may be off, but if you observe the melodies’ implied intonations, they are at once catchy and different. There is no problem with off-notes either: Many different world music genres use tones in between defined pitches. Although it’s an aesthetic that you may not be used to, it is not necessarily wrong. Beyond that, the musical backgrounds of the songs are damn interesting. From the violent perpetual motion bowing on violin in “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” to the random squeaks in “Communist Daughter’ that somehow end up sounding musical, the album is not that simplistic at all if you manage to give it multiple listens; there are interactions between timbres and pitches that are fascinating in the same way electronica or classical textures are fascinating. Other songs like “Oh Comely,” which doesn’t have random quirks about it, are moving in the same way Brian Eno was moving: through repetitions whose small variations make it memorable. If it sounds like an excuse, it’s really not. It is enjoyable to hear Mangum strain his voice in a different manner to reach a different note in a repeated musical phrase. And who cares if his pronunciations are different? Who’s to say a word should be pronounced a certain way when the ultimate goal is to create musicality? All in all, Aeroplane is just as musically appreciable as any other album. It’s far more tolerable than, say, Trout Mask Replica, which received a perfect score on Prindle’s site and was praised for having “non-traditional melodies.”
The most ridiculous accusation is that its lyrics are pointless. If they are, all poetry is pointless, everything from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” pointless too. Though “The Waste Land” is given meaning by the works to which it alludes, Eliot himself said about poetry: “It is a test (a positive test, I do not assert that it is valid negatively), that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Poetry need not be obvious to be understood, as Eliot implies, and can communicate without us consciously realizing the interpretation. Poetry is open to interpretation, and depending on how we’ve matured and our life experiences, different words can move us. Thus, by Eliot’s standard, Mangum’s lyrics are validated in that lyrics need not make sense to address a certain emotion that can be evoked by another event (like the Holocaust in In the Aeroplane Over the Sea). Further, the lyrics are no more pretentious or unbecoming as Dylan or Frank Zappa’s lyrics. Though they never claimed meaning to their songs, Mangum’s claim does not deter the songs from becoming studies of an emotion that may or may not be related to what he intended.
Now that the arguments against the album have been addressed, a simple question must be asked: What is the purpose of this music, or any music? This answer, though flexible, can be simplified to a few basic elements: Music should entertain, evoke an emotional response, and cause the listener to think. And of course, music should also push the art of song forward. No matter what a person’s stance on the album may be, these seem like reasonable, broad, encompassing categories. These will serve as the conclusive basis for judgment.
The album does all of the basic elements. First, it entertains with the interactive sonic elements laid over “generic” chords and its fascinating rhythms, vocals, and textures. Through its defiance of musical structure, Mangum provides fruits of labor that only ripens with age. It moves through its lyrics, which, though strange, are sung with as much passion and sincerity as Mangum could ever muster. As the album is not a clear imitation of any style except his own, the listener can rest assured that Mangum is earnest in his desire to play his music. The album shifts the musical paradigm by creating songs based around similar chords that all sound unique in their own right, as previously set forth. The album is daring in how offensive it is in morphing traditional musicality and how confident it is in its delivery to provide meaning. And of course, the album causes the listeners to think about the music and images created by both the all the different sonic elements Mangum uses on the album. The listener can ponder these images and their sources, which will further their understanding of the personal meaning of the album.
All in all, those who aren’t ready to scoff and claim that Joy Division was darker or the Beatles were more innovative have the ability to appreciate the album, if nothing else. And really, Jeff Mangum never cared about what he was to people other than himself. This is his “gift,” as some may say. It’s his view of music, emotions, and people, all compacted into 45 great minutes. Jeff Mangum isn’t forcing you to like this album. It’s not (to quote the wonderful George Starostin) a self-conscious masterpiece because Mangum never intended it to be one (in fact, after he rose in popularity, he stopped playing music—not because he felt he couldn’t top it but rather because he thought the idealization was sickening). And because Mangum never intended it to be a masterpiece, how could it be pretentious? If pretension is the proffering of a point, it cannot be.
This essay is not intended to convince anyone of anything either, but rather to defend this album. Those of you who don’t like it can continue to do so, but this essay is not only a rebuttal but a response to those who claim people certainly like the album for any superficial reasons. We come from different musical and emotional backgrounds, different places, different lives, and thus we have different things that will move us. One man's trash is another man's gold, and one man's noise is another man's melody. It is not underlined by a desire to appear "hip."
And for those who dish out judgment without reason, be warned that those of the new music generation will take up the pitchforks and torches and revolt against unintelligent musical judgments. And though different musical opinions are wonderful, hiding behind unqualified opinions is enough reason for someone to tell them to start gathering.