April 26, 2018 | Narrative
the birds and the beats
muskrats, metallica, miscellanea
“I think I’m so educated and I’m so civilized
‘Cause I’m a strict vegetarian.
But with the over-population and inflation and starvation
And the crazy politicians
I don’t feel safe in this world no more.
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war.
I want to sail away to a distant shore
And make like an Apeman.”
-‘Apeman’, The Kinks, 1970
-‘X Gon Give it To Ya’, DMX, 2003
How many bands can you count that are named after animals? You’ve got your occasionally misspelled and increasingly specific primates, like Hairy Apes BMX, The Monkees, The Arctic Monkeys, or Gorillaz. You’ve got your occasionally misspelled winged animals, like the Beatles, The Eagles, Counting Crows, Owl City, or The Byrd. You’ve got your misnamed solo musicians, like the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, who isn’t a cat or even a man-cat (let alone a cat-man), and whose birth name isn’t Cat, or even Stevens, but Steven. You’ve got Seal, who’s actually a human man but probably still feels uneasy performing for the Greenlandic clubbing scene.
We like to think that appreciating music is one of the things that makes us human. We often distinguish ourselves from animals through our rationality—our ability to subvert our instincts to reason. Humans alone enjoy music, we might think, because only we can appreciate it as more than noise. But animals seem to enjoy music too. Studies at the University of Leicester in the UK found that dairy cows produce more milk when listening to music, especially R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” The music relaxes the cows just as it relaxes humans, even if most of us aren’t brought to lactation by Michael Stipe’s voice in polite company. Psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that monkeys relax when they are played rhythmic recordings of the calls they make to signal the all clear on danger. They also like Metallica.
In 1956, composer-philosopher Leonard Meyer concluded that humans find music satisfying because it sets up patterns for us to follow and usually fulfills our expectations. Finding patterns and feeling the satisfaction in being right might also sound particularly human, but it’s actually very animal. In the prehistoric savannah where humankind first evolved, the ability to predict the likely cause and effect of a sound could be the difference between life or death. When you hear a snarl in the jungle, you need to be able to predict and prepare for a lion attack, and if your suspicion is confirmed, evolution generously grants you the satisfaction of an “I told you so” before you’re eaten.
Like the people who name sports teams or the weird girl in your grade school class who always smelled of horses, musicians have a history of interest in animals. This sometimes means creating instruments out of them; horse hair is famously used to string violin bows, many drums use animal hides, and bagpipes make the same noise as the disemboweled sheep they’re made from. Classical pieces like “Flight of the Bumblebee” emulate animal sounds, and in 1953 French composer Olivier Messiaen began recreating birdsong in his work, creating “Réveil des Oiseaux” (“Awakening of the Birds”). Pink Floyd’s song “Seamus” on their 1971 album Meddle had its lead vocals howled by a dog named Seamus over a harmonica backing. By 2005, the deathgrind band Caninus was fronted by Budgie and Basil, two pit bull terriers, until their deaths (presumably from confusion) in 2011 and 2016 respectively. They collaborated with Hatebeak, the only death metal band fronted by an African grey parrot, to create sounds described as resembling “a jackhammer being ground in a compactor” by one listener, and which The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed “in the tradition of Steely Dan except with unintelligible lyrics and no melody at three times the volume.”
What does it mean to be human then? Smarter people than I have tried and failed to answer that question. Benjamin Franklin called humans “tool-making animals,” but the observation that great apes often use sticks to fish ants from their nests has proven that tool-making is not unique to our species. Plato defined humanity as a “featherless biped,” and presumably felt very confused every time he plucked a chicken. In any case, the more we understand about animals and the origins of the traits we once believed to distinguish us from them, the more we are made to confront our own immersion in the animal kingdom.
This Spring Weekend, you might find yourself engaging in some “wild” behaviors—drinking like a fish, screeching like a kookaburra, and smelling like the unfortunate offspring of a dung beetle and a weedy sea dragon. More than that, however, music will connect you to the natural world in ways people rarely realize. When we hear a song, we’re reliving our primal fears and instinctive desires. We’re enacting the echoes of our survival mechanisms — what it means to be alive. So when you wake up on Sunday and remember how awfully you were dancing to Anderson .Paak the night before, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re only animal.