Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship
I'm a sucker for the Food Network. Chopped is my jam, I have strong opinions about specific Iron Chefs and I know more personal information about Alton Brown than I should. Food culture fascinates me because of how different it is from the music culture in which I have been submerged so long. While watching these shows, I do occasionally cringe when a Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay type crosses the streams and compares a food item to music. "This crepe is totally rock & roll." "This stew is jazz-fusion confusion." The inverse is not true. I don't get bummed when a song lyric mentions food, because the motivation is usually different. Music (almost always) references food as a metaphor, while food (almost always) references music as an attempt at coolness.
Music culture is not definitively cooler than food culture; many music writers I know have dabbled in or completely crossed over into food writing, and I don't blame them. Granted, there are obvious physical practicalities that change the dynamics of both cultures. If college kids figured out how to illegally download Whoppers, Burger King would go out of business. If listeners had to pay every time they consumed a song, many ears would go hungry.
The coolness that food culture promotes is a less accessible one that (almost always) costs money. At least, money is necessary for one to experience the best foods possible. Lobster is more expensive than tilapia, but Radiohead and Coldplay are usually priced the same on iTunes. Food culture attempts to elevate a basic human requirement into an art form, and it therefore excludes those who only have the time or money to meet their needs rather than spoil themselves.
Musicians have long been aware of this incongruity, which is why so many song lyrics use food to represent class. RUN DMC ate caviar in "Sucker M.C.'s" to compare its success to its inferior peers. The Mountain Goats ate chocolates from Belgium and had strawberries flown in from England on the excessive downward spiral of "Fault Lines." Notorious B.I.G. reminisces about eating sardines for dinner before his fame on "Juicy." Death Cab For Cutie poked fun at the high class/low class dissonance of "Champagne in a Paper Cup." Food makes a powerful metaphor because it is a necessity. Although some reading this will certainly claim otherwise, you will not die without music. But music offers a frivolous fulfillment that food culture envies. I ain't no kind of brain expert, but it seems that only when a dish is truly great does it affect the same parts of me as hearing a great song.
I suspect that the metaphorical music in food, the kind Guy Fieri mentions when complimenting restaurateurs on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is one dimensional. All rock is bold as if there are no ballads. All jazz is smooth even though so much of it is intentionally grating. All Latin music is spicy like there is no distinction between samba and bossa nova. We know this is not true. Two riffs can be heavy for different reasons, as can two doughnuts.
Simply saying a fajita is a rock & roll fajita doesn't capture the intricacies of what makes something rock, just like saying "awkward" in that irritating slow way with "ward" a minor third lower than "awk" is no substitute for a genuinely uncomfortable joke. Likewise, a mention of Baccardi -- although it does make a convenient rhyme with "party" -- does not itself a metaphor make.
In order for food culture and music culture to perfectly coexist, both must be respectful of each other. Musicians must not lyrically peg high-class eaters as 1 percenters. Foodies must not judge bassists for carelessly pounding a burger on the way to band practice. And once these two orbs live in harmony, we can break the rules all over again in the name of art.