Thursday, October 13, 2011

In which I talk about why I hate talking about music

So, about five years ago, I started really hating talking about music.  Not just online, but in person.  I have used the analogy "we might as well be arguing over which color we should like best", and I kind of stick to that.

I suppose I sort of used to talk about music here and at League of Melbotis, but talking about music in person is often an oddball conversation wherein you're both talking about driving, but one of you is talking about driving sports cars on empty stretches of road, and someone else is talking about NASCAR, and someone else is talking about playing SpyHunter at Chuck E. Cheese in 1987.

On the internet, however, there's no difference between a somewhat apathetic or agnostic stance and finding that your "meh" attitude just outright offends someone.

Concrete Example: If I could barely muster a shrug that REM finally hung it up after not finding a place in my record collection since Out of Time, released almost 20 years ago, I'm sorry.  It doesn't mean I think you're an idiot for praising Monster or Automatic for the People.  I haven't paid any attention to the band since my Junior year of high school.*

I just don't care.  And its not that I don't care that much about YOU as a person (and I know you take your music seriously), but I can't do anything with the fact that we have different ideas about the rock and roll.

That said, if you were to reveal yourself as a Maroon 5 fan, there's going to be a couple minutes of me finding ways to further humiliate you for your poor taste.

Fact:  I don't have a cultivated taste in music (ie: I have somewhat awful taste).  I don't do deep dives into musical catalogs and I rarely explore bands.  I quit researching music circa 1998, and at the time, I was digging through CD transfers of vocalists like Billie Holiday, but never made it into full-blown Sarah Vaughn fandom or anything.

Fact:  These days I buy maybe 10-12 albums per year.  I'll listen to maybe 6 or 7 of those more than three or four times.

Fact:  I certainly don't attend shows like I used to.  My numbers are way up from when we lived in AZ, but I see, maybe, four or five shows per year (and when did it become a luxury expense to go to shows.  Jesus.)

Fact:  I have an older sibling, and as often happens, this meant I had a pipeline into music slightly atypical of my exact peer-group by age 13.  Further, my elder sibling and his pals were not usually into Top 40 radio.  This is when I recall trying to play stuff for classmates and the stuff getting rejected.  Aside from Dr. Demento records, which everybody seemed to like.

Fact:  It doesn't mean I was immune to enjoying what got radio play or "too cool".  I enjoyed me some Guns'n'Roses back in the day.  I also have a place in my heart for Madonna, who I would have paid good money to see in the 90's.

Fact:  I DID work in a record store for a couple years in college.  It was an utterly hilarious working experience.

Fact:  My occupation has never been conducive to having music playing (I have to write a lot, and/ or hold conversations by phone or in person), and I don't listen to music all that much in the car on my commute.  I'm now a books-on-tape kind of guy.  And I only really listen to music at home if I'm doing something like manual labor.

Fact:  When I bag on bands you like, always remember, I unironically bought Hootie and the Blowfish at one point in my life.  The first box set of CDs I ever bought was a Bing Crosby box set.  And I have owned more than one Tangerine Dream album.

In the end, I'm also 36, and I just don't think about music all that much anymore.  Sort of how you didn't perceive your folks as musical snobs while you were growing up.  That's me these days!

So on Facebook I follow a site called Slicing Up Eyeballs.  Its a nostalgia site for at least some of the stuff I listened to back in the day.  The name, of course, refers to the Pixies' lyrics to Debaser, which is, in turn, a tribute to a surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (a fact I didn't know until I was 19, in film school and watching the film, and had that "ohhhhhhhh" moment).

Probably the biggest source of confusion when talking with folks even a year younger than myself is that I'm not a huge fan of Nirvana.  In fact, I find it weird when people from my graduating class or older wax rhapsodic about Nirvana.  But here's the deal...  again, its not that I dislike Nirvana.  No, I didn't find them with Bleach, because that really wasn't in my wheelhouse at the time.

I saw the premiere of the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV's 120 Minutes,** and was absolutely cracked up.  It was one of my first three CDs when I finally got this crappy portable CD player for Christmas in 91.  But then, back-to-back with GnR's November Rain, thanks to the power of MTV's dial-in video show and record execs all excited over this "grunge" thing, the song and band became this sort of ugly musical wall paper that was so overplayed...

I just don't have good memories of Nirvana from about January of 92' on.  I'm sorry, people who love them.

But they weren't my introduction to "alternative", a term that made me realize the part of the music industry I actually liked, was about to get co-opted.  Sure enough, the same folks who had been shoving Garth Brooks tapes at me the month before were now shoving Nirvana at me.  They made Crash test Dummies happen, and Spin Doctors and Counting Crows something we had to listen to.

Sadly, that's mostly how I think of the band now: it didn't win anyone anything.  It wasn't like a cultural barrier was shattered and people's tastes actually changed.  Stuff that got played on the radio or on MTV got traction.  Somehow the success of Nirvana killed the facade of hair bands and put the Rick Astley's of the world in a corner, but it just meant that suddenly LA was both trying to exploit existing groups (god save us from the @#$%ing Goo Goo Dolls), overhyping mediocre suburbia-safe versions of genre-rock (see:  Green Day) or manufacturing  "alternative" bands with derivative sounds and stylists into pre-packaged lunchables (see:  anything resembling The Strokes).

I don't blame Nirvana, but the connection is largely inescapable inside my teeny-tiny mind.

I wanted to believe something that may or may not have been true, depending on the band - that there was this unquantifiable concept of "authenticity" to artists, be it Prince, They Might be Giants or Rollins Band.  Yeah, sure, a 17 year old doesn't want to share the stuff they like (and we all have a sense of ownership over music we like) with the idiots they hold in contempt from Pre-Calc.  But once "alternative" broke... hell, once it had a name (which meant someone was trying to market this stuff), it lost the allure of not just the secret, but the "us vs. them" mentality that had added fuel to the fire of liking your music.

Nirvana wasn't the first band I really, really liked.  They were one album among many, and something that was outside of my usual zone, which is often the stuff I see mentioned on Slicing Up Eyeballs.

In the end, Nirvana kind of fell in this space alongside other bands from the time I didn't retain a particular attachment to: from Big Audio Dynamite to Ned's Atomic Dustbin to Living Colour to Charlatans UK to frikkin' Jesus Jones or EMF.  I had tickets to see Public Enemy open for Sisters of Mercy.  Man, that would have been crazy.  If I'd listen to either today for nostalgia, it'd certainly be PE.

I know, I know... but I said I had shitty taste in music.

What I didn't have much of a knack for were the bands you were supposed to like.  Joy Division.  The Smiths.  The B-52s.  Depeche Mode.  Skinny Puppy.  And I got into RevCo way, way too late in the game.

Do I still listen to stuff from high school?  Sometimes.  Stuff that was relevant to me, sure.  Three or four Cure albums.  Three or four Siouxsie records.  Love & Rockets.  Pixies.  Talking Heads. Pogues.  My Bloody Valentine.  Jane's Addiction.  A smattering of Lush, Cocteau Twins, Curve...  Certainly whatever the Violent Femmes put out (and I saw them a handful of times).  I'll even cop to giving my This Mortal Coil stuff a spin every once in a blue moon.  But I just can't listen to Ministry anymore without feeling a little embarrassed.

I guess I'm writing this post, because it comes up A LOT.  So frequently, I get kind of tired of talking in these ellipses around the topic or trying to politely explain anything about what I do or do not care about in music or why.  And, no, it doesn't mean I think I'm a better person than anyone else because I bought Bossanova the day it was released.  It just means I was a Pixies fan at the time, and that was my thing.

1)  Its f'ing unpleasant to deal with music snobs.  Even friends who are music snobs, who've forgotten there's subjectivity to this nonsense or that, maybe their opinion doesn't equate to fact.  Luckily, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer of them, and  now we get to appreciate how hilarious it is for some skinny t-shirt wearing kid trying to contextualize the latest album for us when we know that kid has only ever bought vinyl as a status symbol.

2)  Its been a surprising rarity that I've had friends with whom I shared musical tastes, just as friends rarely read the same books or necessarily like the same movies.  And other times I hope to learn from my friends of stuff I've never listened to.

3)  I don't push what I'm listening to upon others unless I'm driving.  I don't even like to play music at parties at our house, lest we get complaints of someone starts messing with the iPod. 

Its not politics, religion or sex, but for something that is categorized as mass media, man, we get weird about it.

*my junior year:  when I also thought aliens might be among us and it was okay to just eat a loaf of bread, because it was made of wheat
**if you weren't watching 120 Minutes in the early 90's, you were missing the last gasps of relevance of the network.


Hisham said...

REO Speedwagon or nothing! Lulz.

Simon MacDonald said...

Amazingly enough I ended up becoming a fan of Nirvana but not right away. Everyone in high school was freaking out about them but the music was kinda intelligible when you are hearing it over an AM radio broadcast. It wasn't until after their unplugged session that I fell in love with the band. My buddy and I were driving back from university and he wanted to listen to his new Nirvana album. That is when I first was able to appreciate the lyrics and realize that Kurt Cobain was quite the song writer. So on that drive I became of fan and by extension of fan of Dave Grohl who I still follow to this day.

Today's popular music has certainly passed me by not unlike some of todays superhero comics. I guess we are both getting old. Luckily I have a former university buddy who I've reconnected with in a hilarious story as he lives 4 doors down from me. He's a bit of a music snob and I've been able to pick up on bands like "Foster the People" and "Cage the Elephant" without every having to listen to popular radio.

The League said...

Yeah, I have some work colleagues and local pals who pass me stuff, and sometimes I'll buy it. As I said, I try to still keep an open mind, but I'm not as likely as I once was to pick up an album off one listen. No doubt, its great to find someone else in the same wheelhouse.

Every once in a while I still find a band I can't quite figure out how I missed them. Somehow I'd never noticed Neutral Milk Hotel until a few years back. The album was 10 years old by then. How the @#$% did that happen? Well, in 1998, I was on a tear only spending energy to learn about mid-century Jazz and vocalists.

J.S. said...

You can give up a lot of things in life by way of the explanation that you're just getting older, but if you do that too many times life just isn't as fun anymore. I have less time for music than I used to, and I would agree that it's harder to get into some of the newer stuff (especially when some of it sounds like recycled version of lesser known older stuff), but a good band playing on a good night to a good crowd is still one of the things I live for. (and I still keep my eyes peeled for new bands playing original sounding stuff- there are a few still out there if you look really hard for them)

The League said...

Well, I didn't say I DON'T listen to music, or I DON'T go to shows. Or that I DON'T have a good time at many of the shows I attend. Its just not as central to my free time as it was in high school and college. Anyone who follows my movements knows I'd just rather attend screenings of movies, go to signings for comics, etc...

I still enjoy new music when I find something new I like, and I understand (especially living in a town like Austin) that music and live music are how many people spend their time and money.

As per getting older: I was also aware from early 20's that I wouldn't always keep up. I realized about 6 years ago that I hadn't kept up, and it was perfectly fine.

I can live in a world where I've never heard Deerhoof or whatever the hell. Or feel like I read Red Hood & The Outlaws so I've properly kept up with the DCU, if that's what it means to "give things up".

I expect to have changing tastes as time goes on, and changing interests within a certain vector from where I started. I expect I'll still be buying new albums for decades to come.

What I can't do anymore is pretend like I LIKE everything, especially in an online environment. Or put on airs that I'm still paying attention in the way that I did from ages 13-25, when that was a pretty big part of how I burned through brain cycles, and how I spent my money. I'd be lying, and rather than respond to a host of emails or try to walk my way through face-to-face conversations about how I currently think about music - ya'll got this post.

J.S. said...

Well, you gotta just like what you like. This reminds me of that prior post about not being able to experience everything, so it's reasonable not to try to hear/see everything. Which, of course, is true. But there's always that ol' nagging thought in the back of your mind that if you don't make the effort to explore at least some of the new stuff, than a new favorite might be out there and you might not even know about it. I think it's about balance, and I guess that balance shifts as you get older. I tend to rely on reviews and recommendations now more than I used to, actually, but I try to rely on reviewers that I trust and friends who understand my tastes. In my youth I was a little more full of myself and was more convinced that I couldn't rely on anyone's recommendations.