Dedicated Listening

I used to write for music rags. Free ones. I used to think that is exactly where all of THIS was going: The writing, the general hostility towards popular culture, my inane pickiness towards new things. The manifesto of the time was Dave Thompson’s I Hate New Music. Today, as I compose this mess of words I can readily admit in those early days I had little idea of what I was supposed to be doing or why I was doing it. Little has changed between then and now.  

When you are 19 and in college, the idea of writing about bands and music while taking casual drugs and watching Almost Famous seems like a better idea than dragging oneself to yet another seminar on British Literature. Who wouldn’t love to have the inside track on new music, up and coming bands, or knowing famous people before they were actually famed. On top of it all, who wouldn’t love to be shipped free, pre-release music, on physical album space when broke college students relied on the Napsters and Limewires of the world to deliver a mess of misnamed, untagged, music that was always riddled with some kind of virus?

Months after I had started writing for Keith – the owner of the music rag – I had a bad day. Up to that point I had talked with people who Garage-banded their own work and got into shows for free at the places that I would hang out and drink anyway. Yet, this bad day – one of many in those years, I was sent an album to review that was hands-down the worst thing I had ever gleaned from a CD. The album in question was  a juvenile mess of country music laid over with dick and fart jokes about life in the trailer park, composed by guys who lived in a well-off Colorado suburb.

I ripped it apart in 300 words, Keith ran the piece. There were complaints.

For any band you have or haven’t heard of, there are at least a dozen people who will show up to just about every show they do at whatever neighborhood dive would have them. They are the ones who buy the T-shirts, the albums, and share every event in triplicate on Facebook. These are the wives, the boyfriends, and the offspring who rely on members of the band for something and are endlessly supportive in return. They also collaborated with the editor of the music rag to have me removed from publication – which was probably a HUGE blow to freedom of speech.

“You can’t hate everything like that,” Keith tells me with a strangely fatherly tone over coffee one morning a little further down the road. “It is possible to write about something you don’t like in a way that might appease everyone. It’s called objectivity.”

Writers like Bangs and Christgau probably never had to deal with being objective or softening up their tone for albums they didn’t like. They probably never bothered listening to or thought about writing on them in the first place. Trailer park country music  likely wasn’t a considerable genre back in those days. Maybe I was jealous of what they got to see and the archives they were able to build and publish from them. Even through the words, I didn’t see what they got to see. Music writers in those days were in the position every publication writer is: somewhere between advertisers, promoters, the art itself, and the people who produce it. Journalists in that particular heyday had the rather difficult job of distilling down the lifestyle of inebriation, addiction, overdose, and violent relationships into casual tales of drugs, drinking and parties that went till dawn.  It takes about a decade of failures and mistakes to realize that Almost Famous is far from a career plan, it is a cautionary tale.

If I couldn’t deal with four middle-aged suburban hobbyists who recorded, mixed, pressed, and printed an album by hand, then what business did I have with someone who embraced heroin as a garnish? Who was I to rip apart this album? Me, the guy who was too hungover to write most of the time, the guy with a roommate that was always at least two months behind on the rent, the guy who couldn’t tell two chords apart, much less play them? If I couldn’t figure that out, then what business did I have criticising anything?

When working with a rag, page space is limited so what gets listened to and reviewed has to be attractive for the readers (usually just the bands featured, their significant others, and anyone with a birdcage to line). Space was limited; music was plentiful.

Moving online gives infinite page space, but the reader’s attention becomes finite. Your own attention shortens. What you can write about both expands and contracts at the same time. The music doesn’t ever stop coming. No filter. Sometimes I think the best thing to ever happen to me was to upset the jilted lover who threw a bottle of cheap Merlot at my head, only to have it shatter on the wall behind me. My laptop, a hard drive, several decent books (never replaced), and my workspace was liberally coated in a slowly-sticking wash of red. Worse yet, the wine went to waste and I never got my deposit back on that place (the same place the roommate was two months behind in. I can only imagine everyone’s 23 year of existence is equally as awesome).

Everything byte of music I owned was on those two corrupted drives. Moving eight addresses in 6 years meant collections of anything were hard to keep around. Libraries of books and CD collections were sold off or given away with the each expiration or surrendering a lease. No one was buying records, no one was making CDs. Everything was progressively digital. The shelves that used to be lined with CDs were now keychains of branded USB drives featuring albums that each required their own special player. And there was Napster. A lifetime of music packed into a little box.

To go from a flood of chosen music to whatever happens to be on the radio is a relief few get to know. Today there is more music available to listen to than any one person can hear in a lifetime. Ten lifetimes. James Jackson Toth – a music journalist who was mailed stacks of records on the regular, in addition to creating a massive archive from the early days of Napster – realized the issue of having too much to listen to. When there is so much to hear, it’s hard to actually LISTEN to anything. When he challenged himself to dedicate listening deeply to one album per week – the only thing he’d listen to that week – he found that it was an impossible task. The medium for it doesn’t exist anymore; there is no element of focus in the consumption or appreciation of what is out there – like being sprayed with a firehose while drowning in the ocean.

There used to just be one song. Then maybe there were a dozen, sung around a campfire to a beat played on a dead animal skin stretched over something. These were tales of lore, of culture, of who they were. My mindset of casual anthropology is on par with my criticism of popular music: it sounds right sometimes, but is rarely grounded in much. Yet, in these modern times there is this feeling that music is more of a commodity than an artform. Albums went from being a wholesome work that enjoyed beginning to end on a turntable somewhere to twelve songs packaged together and uploaded with cover art. Sometimes we would wait years between albums from our favorite artists, now some of them are releasing five within a year. Others are just going back to releasing just singles every few weeks, and they are giving them titles that would be more palatable to algorithms.

So young, poor Rob

There will always be favorites we fall back on or stuff that we hear by happenstance in a bar or on the radio that we end up loving. If we leave it to the algorithms, we will just be listening to more and more of what we already love without having the room to ask: am I listening to the right stuff? Have I been exposed to the stuff that I was sure to enjoy? Is there a singer-songwriter out there that I might change my entire stance on life? How do I find them, and wouldn’t it be a sonofabitch if they happen to be playing at the cafe down the street from me next week?

There are no answers at the end of this. Just a lot of wondering and questions that probably never need to be addressed. If we are to address our appreciation of music critically, wholesomely, then it does require effort. It may require going out of the way and approaching music in a way that hasn’t been thought of in a while: through vinyl records and stores that sell them, through conversations with all the Robs of all the Championships of the world. Through trading physical mediums and picking up the album of the opener that you happened to catch the end of the act. At the end of this discourse, a single question: do we listen to have a noise we can control, or are we listening to be open to a chance for change?

Maybe this was supposed to be overwhelming. I didn’t think it would be like this. Maybe everything I’m meant to discover should be by accident. Maybe I’m supposed to rely on the meta-data tied to a music file because I can’t ever remember to order a new needle for the record player.

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