Think of the five senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste.
Now think of a song, and all it implies. I hope I don’t have to explain how music influences, stimulates, rewards, and even damages hearing. Sight? Absolutely. Evocative lyrics, album design, the spectacle of a live show. Touch? Texture is synthesized with song to an almost integral degree. Unwrapping a new cd, the taut feel of new guitar strings, the way you reach out for the surprising weight of a bodysurfing musician, the people pressing against you at a concert, the placement of a needle on vinyl, the pencil spinning in the middle of an old cassette. Smell is less tangible, but memories of watching and performing evoke smoke, sweat, wood and skin.
But what about taste? Do lyricists ever tackle the poetics of food? Only rarely. Most references to taste, at least in the music I enjoy, are placed in a romantic or erotic context. The exceptions are almost exclusively goofy songs like “Cheeseburger in Paradise” by Jimmy Buffett or “Eat It” by Weird Al, or old bubble gum songs like “Lollipop” or “I Want Candy.” In fact, when you look at online lists of the best songs supposedly about food, most of the modern ones actually reference something completely unrelated (see “Brown Sugar,” “Milkshake”). And it makes sense, because it’s hard to imagine a group like The Shins talking about pizza, or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah extolling the virtues of French cuisine. (They did reference salad niçoise that one time, but I think Ounsworth was sneering as he sang it. Of course, I’m convinced that Ounsworth is always sneering, so I’m not exactly going out on a limb here.)
Does the experience of listening to music make you crave food? Not for me. In fact, I’ve had the opposite experience; when I go to a concert, I know that any lingering hunger will disappear with the adrenaline rush of the show. It’ll return with a vengeance afterward, of course, but I’m safe while the music’s playing. It’s almost like sex and intense athletic competition—they don’t go together, at least at the same time. Not to get too crass here, but when was the last time you felt randy in mile three of a five-mile jog?
So it goes with music and hunger. The question is, why? Why are sound and taste such disparate, disconnected senses, while others—smell and taste, smell and memory, sight and hearing, sight and touch, hearing and touch—make such good pairs? I have a few theories.
At least not safely. You also can’t dance and eat at the same time, and I’ve found that eating while listening to music is too much of a good thing. Only George Costanza could indulge in two unrelated sensory inputs and get away with it. But now that I’m thinking about it, I’m starting to wonder which band would be most delicious if you could eat music. What would The Beatles taste like? An excellent strip steak? French onion soup? Would top 40 radio be like eating 100 pieces of cheesecake in an hour? I better stop thinking about this before the government finally figures out I’m too crazy to be left in free society.
Seriously, though, the act of eating and singing are practically physical opposites. No wonder there’s a mental disconnect between the two acts; years and years of evolution have taught us that they’re naturally separated. Why would you ever write a song about food when you could write about something that has a more mutually influential relationship with music, like love?
I know there are some gastronomes out there pounding their desks and insisting that a well-prepared Canard à la Rouennaise can be literally orgasmic. (If you believe the movies, there are also countless experimental lovers who eat strawberries off their partner’s bodies, although they seemed more prevalent in the ’80s.) But the act of consumption is very basic for most people, and lacks any sensual, tragic, comic or romantic connotation. Speaking only for myself, the emotion I currently experience the most when eating is shame. I spend most of my day wishing I ate less, and learning to abhor food the moment I’ve finished consuming it. Can you imagine feeling that way about music? Yes, but only if you listen to Insane Clown Posse on a regular basis. For the rest of us, shame is a sentiment to be avoided with our tunes.
Think about the main songwriting themes. Love is the obvious number one, whether the singer feels hopeful, cynical, melancholic or utterly broken about the subject. Elsewhere in songs, you get joy, anger, sadness, bitterness, depression, toughness, world-weariness, hope, defiance, rebellion, humor, protest, neuroses and apathy. These are all emotional components of the singer’s life experience; the deeper issues, even when they’re disguised as shallow. Eating food is merely an act of survival, or perhaps shame, endowed at best with temporary pleasure and maybe, at a stretch, relief? That’s not even in the same ballpark.
Can you imagine if your favorite indie band wrote a song about a delicious seven-course meal they enjoyed at a five-star restaurant in Vienna? And it was delivered without a hint of irony? If you’re like me, you’d be kind of annoyed. Maybe appalled. Which doesn’t mean that I’d turn down such a meal in such a location, but only that I’d prefer not to have it shoved in my face by a songwriter. Musicians are not all poor, but the great majority of them are more liberal than the average citizen. The artistic ideals they aspire to are far closer to poverty than wealth, and that’s how we like it. We want them feeling the heartbeat of humanity, with all its flaws and weaknesses and troubles. What we don’t want is someone raving about snail caviar and baby octopus while the rest of us eat ramen noodles and fast food and try to pay rent.
We consumers will gladly ignore the fact that musicians can become fabulously wealthy as long as they create music that feels honest and democratic. Writing about food? That would the artistic equivalent of pouring hot oil from atop the castle walls on the unwashed hordes below.
Food and music, like heavy metal and banjos, just don’t mix. Drink, on the other hand, is firmly entrenched within the musical experience. It subtly tweaks our brains to become more receptive to the beauty and intensity of what we’re hearing. Wine, beer, and liquor are elegant and complementary dance partners, and they go particularly well with song. So keep the good stuff flowing, life, and hold the solids.