Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from copy editor Gwen Ihnat:
Now that I’m here in the A.V. Club office (a.k.a. the greatest job in the world), I notice that in our open workspace, earbuds and headphones are a necessity. As I become one with my laptop for eight hours trying to perfect all that great A.V. Club copy, I find myself fumbling for the perfect soundtrack. I need music that’s vibrant to keep me alert enough to catch the tiniest typo, but that I’m semi-familiar with so that it doesn’t distract me too much. Last week I went through Bruce Springsteen’s entire catalog. This week I’m tackling all the various Nashville soundtracks, which are better than the show itself. I’ve also become a fan of this oxymoronic Songza channel called “Mainstream Indie.” So I’m curious: What’s your favorite thing to listen to while you’re working?
I can only listen to music without lyrics when I’m working: Hearing words is too much for my brain to process when it’s trying to write them. When I was well on my way to high-strung all-As-all-the-time anxiety in high school, my grandfather gave me a CD called Mad About Baroque, which he described as “brain music.” I played it on repeat except for a song that featured heavy harpsichords, which I manually skipped with increasing hatred for the instrument. Has my study music evolved since “study” has been replaced by “work”? Not really. No longer a listener of CDs, obviously (my computer doesn’t even have the ability any more), I play the hell out of Pandora’s Baroque channel. It’s perfect background music, blocking out the office sounds around me but doing so with an intensity that helps me focus, making me feel like I’m pushing toward something. All except the songs that are heavy on the harpsichord or—God help me—the few songs that are a showcase for the harpsichord exclusively. It’s an instrument somehow both grating and deadening. I hate it so, so much. But the Baroque music it’s a part of is great for work.
Right this minute, I’m listening to Courtney Barnett. But when I’m doing serious editing (for my day job) or writing (for The A.V. Club, or wherever else), I tend not to listen to music: I need to concentrate, and I find that quiet works better than music when I need to formulate or reformulate a sentence that more than a few people might conceivably read. Fortunately, all of my work does not require that level of concentration, and I find that when I’m doing work that can accommodate a long stretch of music, it’s pretty much the only time I find myself reaching for Spotify. Generally, I like some kind of physicality in what I’m listening to; I can’t tote my CDs or LPs around with me, but I can at least hold on to my iPod, along with the self-satisfied notion that a lot of my music was purchased in a way that kicks at least a couple of bucks to the artist. But sometimes I just want to listen to, say, my wife’s playlist of the best songs of 2013, or my personal Best Of Liz Phair compilation, and Spotify has become my go-to for playlists. If you want to listen along, I’m on there as rockmarooned.
I’m going to echo the sentiments of some of my colleagues here and state that the absolute best aural condition in which to write or edit is a deathly quiet. (Perhaps I should start working remotely from one of those monasteries where the monks have taken vows of silence.) But given the general din of conversation that occurs at a satirical publication, a productive hush isn’t always possible. So when I do need something with which to flood my ear channels, I go for black metal. That may seem counterintuitive, looking to loud music as a substitute for total quiet, but something about the wall-of-sound created by, say, Blut Aus Nord works well as black noise. Most songs eschew a verse-chorus-verse construction, so I’m rarely distracted by any kind of “catchy” repetition. Similarly, the lyrics are often indecipherable, as they’re usually delivered in a banshee shriek. What I get are long stretches of sometimes-feverish, sometimes-droney music, too intense to make me drowsy and too dense to command my constant attention. Set that glorious cacophony to the proper volume and I enter a cone of ambience that no open-office shoptalk can penetrate.
While I share Mr. Dowd’s penchant for silence when I’m working, that also tends to be an impossibility. So turning to music I’m already familiar with is the next best option, something I know well enough that it doesn’t require my attention, but loud enough to block out incidental conversation. In practice, this means a lot of punk rock and a lot of movie soundtracks. But lately I’ve found myself relying on an odd combination: Bach’s Goldberg Variations on repeat, but with one song added right at the top: Jessie J’s single “Bang Bang,” which I can’t stop listening to. I’ve never been one for listening to a song over and over, but in this case, I find that the combination of classical and one stupid pop song puts me into some type of trance-like productivity, where I’m comforted by some beautiful music, but nonetheless get fired up again every time it re-starts. I’ve caught myself singing the words even as I have no idea on a conscious level what I’m saying. Apparently what I’m really saying is: Thank you, Jessie J and Johann Sebastian.
When it comes to office grooving, I have a nasty habit of finding one song, throwing it on repeat, and getting on with my day. I suppose, like everyone else, it’s because I need something I can both enjoy and somewhat ignore. Most recently my go-tos have been Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” and Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.,” all of which I’m familiar enough with to work over while still being aware enough of their presence that I can wiggle to the beat in my chair. The full-album that I continue visiting, however, is Black Marble’s A Different Arrangement. Anytime I know my to-do list has the potential to get the best of me, I throw this mesmerizing album on and let the pulsating synth layers carry me into an editing trance. Working along with the rise and fall of the songs, from the mellow opener “Cruel Summer” to my personal favorite and slightly more upbeat “MSQ No-Extra” all the way to the closer “Unrelated,” this album allows me to both zone out in regard to the shenanigans occurring in the open office and be in the zone when it comes to completing the tasks at hand.
Because I spend most of day working, there’s really no difference now between the music I listen to when I am and when I’m not. I started getting into ambient electronic music for the same reason as everyone else here—I can’t concentrate with someone else’s voice intruding on my inner one—and over time, it just became my favorite genre by default. Anyway, I’ve written numerous times about this kind of stuff, but my current, 16GB playlist features more melodic electronic artists like Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, and Lusine; deep drone like Stars Of The Lid, Ben Frost, Blanck Mass, Damian Valles, and Gnod; 20th-century classical like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, and Harold Budd; and experimental stuff like Demdike Stare, Shackleton, Basic House, Leyland Kirby, and Richard Chartier. But if I really need to zone out (and therefore zone in), I usually put on Thomas Koner’s La Barca. It’s a barren soundscape full of ominous, low-frequency undulations and field sounds recorded in remote corners of the world, with its distant babbles of foreign dialogue providing the same soothing human backdrop you might get in a library, without the chance of getting distracted by someone’s conversation. It’ll do until The Onion hires more people from Azerbaijan, I guess.
I tend to take a page out of film editor A.A. Dowd’s book and use the harshest noise possible to achieve a calming focus in the office. While I usually reach for spastic hardcore—Converge, Punch, and the like—recently I’ve been using something a little softer to fill the chaotic void, Pile’s You’re Better Than This. The record rarely sticks to one riff or time signature for long, with chicken-picked guitar riffs dovetailing into Jesus Lizard-like post-hardcore without any warning or reason. Vocalist Rick Maguire may be a talented lyricist, but it’s best to let the words float away, accepting that his caterwauling is his way of conducting Pile’s musical collisions. Though I’ve unpacked all of the album’s eccentricities by giving it my undivided attention, I’ve found it’s just as enjoyable when I press play and don’t ask any questions.
As several of you have said, my work music has to be both fast and loud enough to drown out the world around me. That’s why, even though my metal knowledge is amateurish at best, my go-to work music is Slayer. It’s too fast to really chair-dance to—although some overcaffeinated toe tapping is usually involved—and easily loud enough to block out anything that might be going on outside of my headphones. Since adopting the Slayer System a couple of years ago, I’ve developed a Pavlovian association between the band and writing, so when it’s time to sit down and crank out some copy, nothing gets me in that head space faster than Reign In Blood on repeat. Plus, the album is only 28 minutes and 58 seconds long, making the opening riff of “Angel Of Death” the thrash-metal equivalent of a clock that chimes every half hour.
Like a lot of my colleagues, I struggle with wordy music while I work. If I’m home or in a hotel or something, I can listen to anything through speakers, no problem. In the office, I’m confined to headphones, and so anything with actual chatter is a solid no-go. My way around that is world music. If I don’t understand what the singer is saying—whether they’re speaking Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, or whatever—then I can generally deal. My all-time go to is the Ethiopiques series, a 29-disc journey through the Ethiopian sound that mainly focuses on traditional tunes or tracks from the ’60s and ’70s. And while a lot of the selections from that series are great, my all time favorite is Volume 21, Ethiopia Song by Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Gebrou. It’s off-kilter piano jazz that’s both odd and stunningly beautiful, and I’ve gone back to it time and time again when I’m writing. It’s got a propulsive beat that’s great to time your keystrokes to, and it’s always able to spark creativity in me, for whatever reason. It’s my magic secret, but I’m glad to spread that wealth around.
I used to be one of those “as long as there aren’t any lyrics” people. There was a lot of jazz and minimalist classical music from Philip Glass and Terry Riley—stuff that was light and repetitive in a hypnotic sort of way. Nowadays, though, even something like In C is distracting for me. There’s just too much melody and movement. So I usually default to silence—or as close to silence as anyone can ever get—but when it’s time to really hunker down and get things done, I get some quiet ambient music going. It’s always either Brian Eno’s Ambient 1 or one of Stars Of The Lid’s last two albums. I’d love to expand my ambient horizons, but at this point, I think my familiarity with those works is a big part of why they help me focus. I’m afraid of change—and melody, apparently.
I benefit from some type of noise when I’m writing, but these days I most often listen to Simply Rain, which calms my addled brain with the soothing sound of pretend precipitation. When I need something more stimulating than a rainstorm simulator, my latest go-to is Mica Levi’s score from Under The Skin. It’s atmospheric and trance-inducing, but also kind of terrifying, even when separated from the image of a naked Scottish guy suspended in a pool of extraterrestrial bile. Whenever my mind starts to drift, there’s a sudden shriek of a violin to snap me back to focus. I don’t fully pay attention to it, but I also can’t fully ignore it, which makes it the perfect soundtrack for work.
The A.V. Club’s TV team hereby endorses the websites of Simplynoise (apologies to my esteemed colleague, but I prefer the steady static of the home page to Simply Rain’s unpredictable drizzle) and the menacing film scores of 2014. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won an Oscar by soundtracking Mark Zuckerberg’s indomitable (and friendship-ruining) workplace ambitions, but I think their Gone Girl score is the superior work (for working along with). Music made to accompany a puzzle, Reznor and Ross’ Gone Girl compositions are an ideal office noise blocker: The kind that has enough space between the notes to allow some thinking to get through. It helps that they treat Gillian Flynn’s neo-noir with genre-appropriate flourishes—like the sirens-in-the-distance melody of “What Have We Done To Each Other?”—that make even the most mundane task feel like solving a headline-grabbing mystery.
I had never listened to a podcast before I had a desk job. My friend turned me on to How Did This Get Made?, and that was the start of my love affair. I went through all the episodes numerous times (my favorite episodes being Jaws 4: The Revenge and 88 Minutes). After that, I got really into Comedy Bang! Bang!, returning frequently to any Paul F. Tompkins episodes. I even had a funny encounter with Scott Aukerman at a restaurant. We were waiting in line and I said, “I love your work,” or something generic like that. He smiled and said, “Thanks! Then he pointed to his wife and said, ‘There’s Kulap,’” who gave me a strange wave and smile as she had no idea who I was. But podcasts were my work savior, a sanctuary where I could reside for an hour or two. Next came Analyze Phish, which is bittersweet now with the loss of Harris Wittels. I became a huge WTF fan, and received a godsend with the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, because he’s my favorite author. I was initially skeptical about podcasts, thinking it would be a lot of inane chatter, but am now an official junkie.
As a chronic procrastinator, I’ve come to accept that the only way I can make myself work is to make myself panic. This means that anything too downtempo will relax me too much to concentrate, so I tend to write to music that most people might use to pre-game a night out: Rihanna, synth-heavy remixes, Angel Haze, Daft Punk, Chromeo, Nicki, Missy, Songza’s excellent themed playlist for Game Of Thrones’ House Targaryen (“Hell Hath No Fury”), Rihanna again and forever. I also listen to my music very loudly. There’s definitely been more than a few times when I’ve been working to a pounding bass beat and it turned out that someone had been trying to get my attention for an embarrassingly long time before I noticed anything was actually happening outside my headphones.
I’m in the same boat as a lot of people here—I can’t write to save my life when there’s music with lyrics playing. As much as I’d love to listen to my favorite bands while I’m working on Newswire articles, they’d all end up filled with Mountain Goats lyrics instead of mean jokes about James Franco or Rob Riggle. (Arguably an improvement, but I’d probably have to share my paychecks with John Darnielle.) So it’s exclusively instrumentals for me. I used to gravitate toward film soundtracks—Thomas Newman’s quiet, placid scores for movies like American Beauty and Road To Perdition are great for long, focused concentration. Lately, though, I’ve been writing almost exclusively to the music of New York experimental electronic duo Ratatat, whose steady beats and pleasant melodies help block out distraction while I wait for the next sentence to show up in my head. To get even more nerdily specific, I’ve lately taken to playing “Black Heroes” off of 2008’s LP3 on endless repeat. I’m listening to it as I write these very words, in fact.
Like Jesse, my CD collection has been gathering dust while I build up by playlists on Spotify. But while I make playlists of all kinds of music I love, for reasons I can’t explain even to myself, when it’s time to write, I find myself gravitating to the cheesy disco-influenced playlist that I would never admit to loving. I can defend tracks like “Groove Is In The Heart,” and lately I’ve been bolstering the playlist with ’70s funk and modern singers like Janelle Monáe and D’Angelo. But the heart of it—the Bee Gees, KC And The Sunshine Band, Diana Ross, even Mick Jagger chirping his way through “Emotional Rescue.” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Yes I do, Rod Stewart. Just don’t tell anyone.
My head is not a place conducive to focused concentration. Too many extraneous thoughts, too much branching self-criticism—my stupid brain is always trying to kill my writing, so sometimes I experiment with finding just the right music to distract me from my own capricious thoughts while at the same time not being so obtrusively interesting as to pull me out of, say, the complexities of that week’s episode of Workaholics. While the idea of immersing myself in thematically appropriate music to the task at hand appeals to my romantic idea of myself as writer, I’ve only had limited success (although reviewing Vikings to the soundtrack of Vikings’ theme music artist Fever Ray’s self-titled first album has gotten me in the proper mindset at times). But in the most desperate of disabling brainstorms, I’ve had a “break glass in case of emergency” relationship with the most notoriously annoying instrumental album of all time, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. It sounds like the worst possible choice, especially sealed inside my skull via headphones, but the droning, squealing buzz of Reed’s deliberately off-putting album—especially now that I’m distressingly familiar with it— sometimes finds just the right frequency to neutralize the complimentary hum of my own discordant thoughts, freeing my faculties to concentrate. No, I do not know how my brain works.
I have a tendency of being confident that I can listen to music and write at the same time, only to discover time and time again that, in fact, I cannot. I can, however, do research, and given how much time I spend researching questions and topics for my various interviews, I still find a fair amount of time to enjoy a soundtrack in the background. Generally, though, I still prefer something that won’t distract me very much from the task at hand, and I’ve found that The Blue Nile is perfect for that. Any of their albums will do, really, but if I had to pick one, it’d be 1989’s Hats, which features “The Downtown Lights.” It’s just a lovely, mellow listening experience through and through, making it the perfect thing to play and enjoy while still getting work done.
Like many of you, I struggled to find the right energizing-yet-not-distracting tunes for my odd work hours. Thankfully The A.V. Club provided me with the answer. While writing it up as a Great Job, Internet! I discovered my musical secret weapon is this 90-minute Outlander-themed Yule log video. I know it sounds slightly insane, but Bear McCreary’s musical score—which ranges from mournful and melancholy to bright and upbeat—coupled with the sounds of a crackling fire puts me into some kind of productivity trance. And whenever I do need a break, I can glance over at the two adorable dogs snoozing by the hearth. Admittedly, I’m not sure that fire will seem quite so psychologically comforting in the middle of summer, but it’s been ideal for getting me through Chicago’s coldest February on record. Great job, Internet, indeed.