Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No One Sings Like You Anymore


More than any other branch of the pop-culture tree, music is associated with childhood. It's something many of us discovered as we were discovering ourselves, providing a set of attitudes, poses, and even clothes for us to try on during our formative years. It was like acquiring an instant personality kit. Music made us feel like individuals, and yet also part of a group with people we could instantly relate to, or wanted to relate to. Just as important, music drew a line in the sand against everything we didn't want to be, which was usually easier to figure out than who we really were.

I'm 33, which means many of my peers are married with kids, mortgages, and lots of other important real-life stuff that takes precedence over finding new bands to like. Even for a professional, following new music takes a lot of time and effort. Not only is there a lot to wade through—usually dozens of albums in an average week—but music trends are rapidly changing. Following new music requires the ability to appreciate many different flavors, and the willingness to go wherever the prevailing winds might carry you. Genres go through creatively fertile periods, buoyed by top-flight artists committed to exploring the possibilities of particular sets of sounds. You have to be willing to wade into unfamiliar waters to find the most exciting artists, and that can be tough for older listeners who are accustomed to music with firmly established parameters. Sometimes, it's just easier to stick with what you know.

I get that. What I don’t get is the hostility that new music sometimes engenders among aging fans. I've chided friends who grew up on punk and indie music for turning into what they always hated—nostalgia-happy, past-worshipping hippies—because they can’t consider the latest buzz band without going into the same tired rant about how artists today don’t have "edge," "relevance," or "originality" by comparison with some overly idealized group from their past. I find that this opinion tends to say more about the listener than the state of contemporary music, which is too vast to be summed up by such sweepingly reductive statements.

I think this whenever I read yet another broadside about how today’s indie rock "doesn't really rock" or whatever. Based on what? Based on your inability to locate bands that make you feel exactly the way you did when you were 15? Let me save you some time: You aren't going to find those bands, okay? Because you changed. I guarantee you that somebody somewhere is making a record just as transformative as anything you grew up with; it’s just that you have lost the ability to hear (figuratively and perhaps literally) those records for what they are.

The lack of interest in new music is one of the things that most dismays me about my own peers, and it serves as a nightmare vision of where I don't want to end up myself. I hardly go more than a few weeks without finding something new to listen to. Music facilitates thinking for me. It keeps my thoughts from feeling frozen in amber. I know I'm seriously depressed when I don't even want to listen to music; my brain is too sluggish to feel like processing new ideas and experiences. I shudder to think of staying in a loop, listening to the same handful of artists from back in those high school days when my world stopped turning. I would dread the thought of having to be a DJ on a classic rock or oldies station, having to act enthused about playing the same few dozen songs day in and day out.

It's not about a superficial search for novelty for its own sake, though, it's just about being open to the new perspectives and sounds that other people can express. There are still plenty of sentimental favorites for me that I'll return to time and again, wondering if anyone else will ever reach the bar set by this artist, but still, nothing can beat that feeling of being taken out of yourself by music that doesn't fit any of your preconceptions, that forces you to pay attention to every minute in order to get a grip on it.