Music: a personal narrative

That title isn’t necessarily a weird description. I’m trying to change it up a little compared to my past blogs, and one thing I have staunchly refused to do in the past is just talk about myself. It all has to do with starting out on Livejournal and being as whiny as one might expect on that platform. So let’s see what happens if I just start writing about my relationship to music.

There are two different stories there, I suppose. I have been both listener and player. I didn’t listen to a lot of music when I was a kid. My mom always listened to music with headphones, it being one of the few things she could do and gave herself permission for alone time. Dad sort of just didn’t listen to music. It’s weird, now, because I know a lot about how into music they both were. Dad stayed up late at night when he was a kid, tuning into Wolfman Jack on a transistor radio while he pretended to sleep. He owned — and I guess I now own — an original LP of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Don’t get too excited: we left it in a closet and naturally that closet’s ceiling leaked one spring. The album’s probably fine, but the cardboard cover is ruined, so it’s not exactly worth any money.

What I mean to say here is that the scene that is already its own cliche in narratives like this, the scene where I sit happily while my mom listens to jazz while she cooks, or my dad puts on Led Zeppelin while fixing his car… those didn’t happen. My first direct introduction to music was movie soundtracks. I’d buy the soundtrack to any movie I liked. So — and you’ll love this — my first introduction to pop and rock music was through the Wayne’s World soundtrack. I still own both of them. The other way I heard music was in the car on the radio, and specifically when my parents would drive me to school, or specifically, to their work and then to school. Dad worked nights, Mom days, and they would share about an hour in the morning. I sat in the back of the store, on the pile of Coke 12-packs, reading and eating biscuits. So I listened to the radio in their cars. Mom listened to the contemporary hits station, which is where my love of 90s music actually comes from — I barely heard it anywhere else.

So when I started listening to music I was listening to classic rock. Once I went out for music for its own sake I actually started with 50s music, because that’s what our local classic rock station played. I still enjoy a lot of that music, but I hardly listen to it any longer. I can be arrested in whatever I’m doing if Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” (which is not a 50s song, mind you, but was one of the few more recent songs they played at this time: I would have been about 12 or 13) starts playing.

I went through music like its own history, starting with Bob Dylan and goofy pop-rock stuff like “Winchester Cathedral” (which my dad, despite having live through the release of the song, always thought was a Beatles piece). I moved on to trippier stuff like “Incense and Peppermints” and this would get us to about the age of 15. High school introduced me to more music, but also began the second phase of my resistance to other music. I had that whole “I don’t like modern music” thing in middle school, but it was generic, bland. In high school I started to specifically complain about certain kinds of music (rap, probably, encouraged by knowing not one single person who liked rap) and particular bands (Metallica was a favorite for me to bitch about — naturally, my best friends loved Metallica. I was the codgery old complainer when I was 14). I went on at length about how awful Nirvana was. Yes, I really like Nirvana. That’s what I’m telling you: I talked shit about music without having any clue what I was doing.

So, high school graduation. This marks me beginning to get into Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I’d been listening to The Who for a few years. College was a whole thing, as you can probably imagine. But mostly it wasn’t listening to music in dorm rooms, but Audiogalaxy and other sharing services that got me into new music. I did overhear the theme song from Kablam coming out of someone’s dorm room one day, though. He told me it was actually a song by the Toasters, and so I’m a ska fan.

I listened to a lot of Japanese music, like you do when you’re a weeb. Grad school was the next big thing — between reading Questionable Content, which basically started as a storehouse for jokes about indie bands, and a friend who made me one of the few mixtapes I ever got in my life (featuring Pavement, Built to Spill, and Broken Social Scene), I got sort of “caught up” to music. Nerdcore illustrated that I liked rap, too, I just had to get rid of the dumb stereotypes in my heads (and yes, I like rap that’s not nerdcore, now). Grad school got harder, of course, when I started my Ph.D., so I’d say I’m no longer really “caught up” to music. Hell, I found out last week that Modest Mouse put out an album last year and got very excited.

The one thing that happened in the latter days of my grad school career would be the streaming music shift. I usually still prefer to have mp3s of my music (switching from cassettes/CDs to digital was not an issue for me), just because I am from a land with no cellular signal. I still don’t fully live in a world where wireless of some kind is a guarantee. But most of my driving and walking and sitting around music is streamed now, even if I have the mp3 (download -> upload to Google Play -> stream back down from Google Play on the Chromecast or the cell phone). So in a sense I have trouble finding out about bands or following new album releases because I listen to music as I look at wallpaper — it’s in the background, chosen by someone else (algorithms mostly) and just, well, there. That is not great. Part of the personal reason I wanted to write this is because I’m trying to overcome that habit now. I got a Spotify subscription and I’m trying to go to an album and play that album. In the old LJ tradition here’s what I’m listening to right this second!

Looking back on what I’ve written I see I’ve actually written about means of distribution and, to a lesser degree, consumption. If I wanted to write more about consumption, I’d have to write about my mom’s stereo being the only CD player in the house, and lying around on my parents’ bed with headphones on to listen to my Wayne’s World soundtrack in the afternoon after school, or the shitty teenage years where I thought it was OK to try to listen to my CD Walkman at the dinner table and basically at all times.  But I’m content. The ways in which music reaches us fascinate me. Every semester or so I like to ask my students how they’re finding out about new music. Almost no one says “the radio,” but fewer than I usually expect say “Pandora.” It’s mostly something along the lines of “my friend recommended this new band to me.” It’s amusing and maybe nostalgic to consider that maybe that’s the time-honored method that doesn’t really change — even if the recommendation came because your friend “liked” the band’s release announcement on Facebook.

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