Music and me

A few weeks ago I was in my room packing up my things when a depressing thought dawned on me: I am never going to hear songs like Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight or RHCP’s Can’t Stop play in clubs after I leave Bristol for good. The former song especially, should be decreed mandatory to play in all clubs in the world. I felt a sense of helplessness which gave way to nostalgia and I spent the better part of the next hour lying in bed listening to Oasis’ Definitely Maybe and playing air guitar to select Weezer songs. It felt especially gratifying. Maybe it was the fact that it was ‘comfort music’ before my imminent departure and all the protean change that should follow. Or maybe it was simply how the volume was turned up particularly high to take advantage of my absentee housemates. It didn’t matter. I spent the next hour revisiting U2’s The Joshua Tree and The Beatles’ Abbey Road in an attempt to stay where I was. It wasn’t like the packing was going anywhere.

Before anyone accuses me of overreaching, a couple of cavils: Firstly, the ‘music’ that I shall speak of only concerns the music that I am most familiar with i.e. popular music. Despite yisan’s many attempts at edifying me, I still cannot tell my Chopins from my Brahms and I am a proper classical music philistine. To add insult to injury, even within popular music, looking at the intimidatingly impressive list of popular music genres on Wikipedia I can safely say that 95% of it is absolutely alien to me. However, I would think that many people are also in the same boat so hopefully what I say will still be of relevance.

Secondly, I have never studied music formally so rest assured this will not be subject to excessive intellectualization. So just me and my humble, non-expert opinion.

I had initially hoped to approach this in a chronological fashion (like my previous post), but then I realized to start from the beginning i.e. a wee boy bopping along to Now That’s What I Call Music!, there is little to be said. All I cared for then was a good melody and a catchy hook. The Backstreet Boys pretty much nailed it, and so did The Corrs, Michael Learns to Rock, Hanson, M2M, just to name a few. It was also around then that I was introduced to the ‘oldies’. My parents’ cars were always, invariably tuned to Light and Easy (now rebranded as Lite FM) which played the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, Richard Marx, The Police, Chicago, The Lovin’ Spoonful etc. These ‘oldies’ were essentially the chart-topping, crowd-pleasing hits of the past, and having such commercially proven pop aesthetics it was hardly surprising that they ingratiated with me quite easily.

It was only when doe-eared pubescence gave way to adolescence did things become more complicated. From ‘what sounded good’, music became more of what was ‘supposed to be good’. I listened to the ‘hippest’ radio channels prodigiously, consumed the top 40/20/10 hits of the week voraciously, and mastered the lyrics to the latest Avril Lavigne hit as musical preference became one of the integers that served to define a teenager’s identity, just like being an Arsenal FC fan, or carrying a Ripcurl bag were integers.

For some, music goes so far as to form the cornerstone of a certain ethos – from the way you dress (see brands like Topman and Urban Outfitters latch on to this by playing carefully selected songs to project an image of ‘cool’), to the way you court a girl. For example, people steeped in indie sensibilities will exchange mixtapes, attend obscure gigs, and bond over their shared love for indie music. Examples of this abound. See Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, or Perks of Being a Wallflower. In 500 Days of Summer Zooey Deschanel made millions of indie fanboys’ hearts flutter when she recited that refrain from There Is A Light That Never Goes Out in the elevator to JGL’s character. You could even go so far as to say that certain values are entombed and idealized, in this case a self-conscious and “off-the-cuff” romanticism.

At this point it would be difficult to avoid dropping the ‘hipster’ sobriquet but that would open a whole can of worms which I would rather keep the lid on. Of course, there are instances of others who are self-professed metalheads or rap adherents or classic rock enthusiasts who adopt their own set of aesthetical values that flow from their musical inclinations and surrounding subculture. Music is lifted from the literal to the symbolic, and becomes more than just notes and meters and tonalities and timbres.

It was about the time when I was 15 that I first discovered the phenomenon that is the music blog which, for some reason or another, was always exclusively focused on unearthing new indie rock music. To my blinkered self it all seemed so fresh and edgy and different that I found myself warming up to this ‘genre’ very quickly. I made my way from Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, MGMT, Vampire Weekend to The Cure, Fugazi, Talking Heads, Primal Scream, The Pixies, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Staple for the indie kid. Some of them I ‘got’ some of them I didn’t (Arcade Fire still confuses me) but I soldiered on. I constantly referred to the British and American tastemakers NME and Pitchfork (whose highfalutin and painfully pretentious reviews, I have to admit, taught me new ways to appreciate music), fantasised about attending Glastonbury and SXSW, and became strangely drawn to disheveled hair and skinny jeans (and promptly discovered, to my consternation, that skinny jeans do not look good on me).

Often times I was led down different rabbit holes: Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Iron Maiden, Tupac Shakur, Genesis, Dr. Dre, Fuck Buttons etc. but my visits are often brief and perfunctory. At the end of the day I always find myself returning to where I came from, dreaming of the day that I stand elbow-to-elbow with 90,000 other people as Oasis swagger onto the Pyramid Stage, culminating in that numinous number with that drum intro and that G chord as Liam Gallagher drawls yearningly, beseechingly, to live forever. That was who I was.

Today, there is no celebrity personality who simultaneously incites so much fervour and ridicule as Justin Bieber does, with perhaps One Direction coming a close second. These artists are commonly derided as pretty, petty vessels for inane, manufactured pop music and depending on who you ask, this indictment can be extended to people like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and even Mumford and Sons. Like fast food to the culinary arts, this indeterminate group of people represent (supposedly) the derivative, inauthentic side of music, carefully designed to be as commercially viable as possible by overloading the aural senses with formulaic arrangements and schmaltzy lyrics. As there is food porn, this is the analogous music porn where all the non-essentials are stripped away and catchy hooks are shoved into our ears, leaving little to no room for subtlety or pathos. Or at least that is what we are presumed to believe.

I believe there are two, inter-connected reasons for all this vitriol. Firstly, a form of bullying elitism. Like all bullies, these music bullies constantly put down and pooh-pooh others so as to (for whatever self-esteem related reason) feel better about themselves. Yes, to these people, musical preferences dictate superiority. Secondly and more importantly, we live in an age of irony, where sentimentality and melodrama are concepts viewed from a judgmental distance, and where everything is filtered through deliberate self-consciousness. As a result, mawkish songs about chasing girls and bright-eyed infatuation become absolutely anathema to this generation of ironists. David Foster Wallace, in ever supreme form, has railed against this overbearing ironic attitude, this same attitude that has subjected the Twilight series, with its kitschy, no-holds-barred kind of romance, to so much scorn and incredulity. Practiced in the extreme, this attitude can also lead to a ridiculous result where people are constantly lifting themselves to higher and more abstract planes of detachment – Carly Rae Jepson is lame, Coldplay becomes banal, Florence and the Machine are derivative, Bon Iver are pretenders and this continues infinitely and the music becomes more and more abstruse until someone decides to draw an arbitrary line and say ‘this is the shit’.

When I was in high school I myself had expressed similar sentiments, and had a particular distaste for Chinese pop music. I found it bland, vapid and extremely formulaic – the piano, strings and acoustic guitar arrangements were invariably present as a dreamy heartthrob croons about love and longing to a 4/4 beat. There was also a vague ‘West is best’ notion which made me shun C-pop in favour of the ‘cooler’ Western pop music which was unfortunate. If only someone had rebutted me by showing me this article about ‘decolonial aesthesis’ (which I absolutely recommend to anybody) I would be less hasty in passing judgment.

Aside from this ironic treatment of music, at the crux of all the contempt poured over certain musicians, there lurks the acknowledgement that some music is objectively better than other music. This naturally beggars the question: ‘Is there an objective standard to music?’, which really is the Gordian knot that is ‘Is art subjective or objective?’. Now, I have never studied art and was never remotely an artsy person – I find sculptures and paintings and architecture all terribly inscrutable –  so I would rather leave that intractable problem alone. But for present purposes, there was one thing which my tour guide in Berlin said while explaining the various interpretations of the Holocaust Memorial which has stayed with me and I have since felt strongly about: like all works of art it is not about what it means, but how it makes you feel.

It was through these lenses that I retrospectively appreciated the music of my youth in a new light. Music does not exist in and of itself. We respond emotionally to music and attach memories and feelings to it. Whenever I think of Daft Punk’s Discovery I think of lazing around with yisan in the summer of 2011, tag-teaming on Diablo 2 and eating Dominoes delivery pizza. When I think of Muse’s Absolution I am reminded of my hostel room when I was 16 where I would be seated at my desk, one moment gesticulating and pretending I was Matt Bellamy on Butterflies and Hurricanes, the next moment playing air-bass to Hysteria, all the while hoping nobody walked in on my frenzied state. Such experiences make the music we listen to pregnant with meaning, and they add up to become the soundtrack of our lives. I remember rocking out to Simple Plan’s Still Not Getting Any… on my Discman when I was 13, and spending countless lazy afternoons listening to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Pavement’s greatest hits album, The Strokes’ Is This It and Yuck’s eponymous debut, because if there was one stereotypical adolescent experience I faced, it was ennui, and I would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, stewing with boredom and doing absolutely nothing at all.

De gustibus non est disputandum: If music is only as good as how we emotionally respond to it, it would seem that the quality of music is just as subjective and idiosyncratic as our moods. For example, after some aforementioned estrangement from C-pop I have now come to appreciate it precisely because of its effusive, soppy nature – something the gushy side of me appreciates. I also enjoy the widely panned dubstep for its cheap adrenaline and visceral aggressiveness, particularly when it is blasted at stratospheric decibels at a club. I do not, however, enjoy listening to Justin Bieber or country music or prog rock. They simply do not excite me or move me or satiate any emotional disposition that I have. At the risk of sounding banal, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and that’s alright.

People would point to the existence of universally acclaimed (The Beatles) and condemned (Rebecca Black) music as some indication of an objective measure of music. But this is misleading. What it really proves is the facile fact that a large proportion of the pop-listening population enjoy The Beatles and dislike Rebecca Black. The fact that a lot of people like Item A by no means proves that Item A is objectively good. To do so would require imputing some objective ideal for musical excellence, as well as flattering ourselves that most of us are attuned to this ideal that we can discern the good music from the bad. I think all of that is unnecessary, and the acknowledgment that music can touch us – with certain music so accessible and potent that it moves many of us – is more than sufficient to get us by.

All that above being said there is a phenomenon that has recently caught my attention.

From what I have observed and what I have experienced myself, there is a tendency for people’s music interests to taper off as they grow older into their adult shoes. The best case in point would be our parents. Most of our parents have reached a certain stage where they register none of the ‘new’ music and continually revel in music of decades past – or, ‘songs of their generation’. For example my mom will be hard-pressed to name any hit song of the past 30 years but she can sing Smokie’s Living Next Door to Alice without missing a beat. The same can be said for the thousands of middle age folk who pay a premium to watch Bruce Springsteen or Air Supply to revisit their pasts. The reason for this, in my opinion, is twofold:

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, music can be a source of an adolescent’s identity, but as maturation and adulthood kicks in, people become self-assured enough to not use their music inclinations to distinguish themselves.

Secondly, as mentioned earlier as well, music soundtracks our lives and we associate our memories and emotions to it but as we grow older, our need for musical nourishment dwindles. This could be a symptom of the monotony of working life, but I think it is more of the fact that the young are impressionable and are caught in a flux of some permutation of anxiety, insecurity, young love, ennui, alienation etc. and thus have a heightened readiness to latch their adolescent memories and feelings to music. When that phase passes, so does the need for any musical sustenance.

With that in mind, I am willing to wager my bachelor’s degree that an overwhelming majority of music consumers are the young. In turn, the music industry is streamlined to produce music that appeal to the young’s sensibilities in some symbiotic relationship. But youth is ephemeral. And when we all eventually grow up, most of us will find ourselves out of sync with the contemporary musical zeitgeist and end up reliving our past through the ‘songs of our generation’. Smokie’s Living Next Door to Alice was released in 1972, making my mom 15 years old then. I can still drop the lyrics to Eminem’s Lose Yourself but ask me to name the latest Lil Wayne or Drake song you will be rewarded with a terrifically blank stare. As I see the same thing happening to me I wonder if I will ever one day find myself paying a premium just to watch The Killers perform on a World Throwback Tour so as to relive my younger years.

When I think about my this so called ‘stagnation’ and own declining interests in new music I am reminded that a phase of my life is slowly and surely ebbing from the horizon behind me, and that I am inexorably growing up and growing older. This undeniably makes me sad, but then again my yen for new music just isn’t there anymore. Listening and discovering new music requires time and effort, and sometimes it can be a fruitless affair.

A few years ago when I would speculate about the perils of growing up, losing interest in music was something I definitely did not envisage, nor did it even vaguely crossed my mind. But it did happened, and it happened slowly and organically and before I knew it, I found myself continually seeking familiarity by referring to music that I was enamoured of when I was younger. None, or very little, of the new stuff gave me as much as value as the older stuff did. I was becoming one of those people who would tsk-tsk at the current popular music and wax lyrical about the glory days of yore. I was getting old.

Which is all still fine. As it is, I believe I can single out a tune for every mood or occasion that I find myself in. Yet, I occasionally do miss the feeling of chancing upon a new band or album which you simply could get. Such moments come by without warning and when they do, they take root deep in your head and psyche and occupy your thoughts for days or even weeks at end, playing out as the perfect soundtrack to your life. As Milan Kundera said in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we ascribe our own meaning and motifs to our lives, and the value of having a soundtrack playing out in the back of our minds and dramatising our lives should hardly be underestimated.

One of my many memories of Bristol was during my second year where I would walk to school plugged in to Massive Attack and Portishead (both Bristol luminaries). The walk to the Wills Memorial Building took 15-20 minutes at a leisurely pace and in those fugue-like, displaced minutes through the university’s hustle and bustle I would let Beth Gibbons’ contralto voice transport me to another more intimate and sequestered place. It was a great feeling. It is feelings like this, along with my many memories associated with The Killers, K-Pop, Phantom of the Opera, Rage Against the Machine and many many more which make music so special. Because even if I do not know when I will next experience something similar, I know that I can always look to music to remember and relive those somnolent afternoons and summer evenings spent walking, dancing, talking and lazing. While a picture says a thousands of words, and a moving picture says millions, nothing quite captures the moment than a good soundtrack.

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