A close friend and I often joke that our taste in music crystallized in 2003. I suppose one could argue that ossification first set in around then; as much as we supposedly have our tongues in cheek, the truth is that I haven’t made a huge amount of effort to discover new music in the last decade. Not that I don’t, of course; it’s just that I don’t make finding new music a priority.
Part of the problem is the simple fact that I don’t listen to as much music as I used to. I listen to news programming an awful lot more than I did twenty years ago and I have a regular rotation of podcasts to get through week to week. Such programming takes up all of my listening time: a fairly sizeable commute to work and periods of physical exercise.
I rarely listen to music at other times, at least not actively. I don’t pay particularly close attention to music playing in bars or restaurants when I’m out and about, typically because I don’t like the music enough to become particularly curious. There’s nothing new there. Where my appreciation of music was once driven by a need for discovery, it’s now driven by a nostalgic tendency to celebrate the familiar and, often, to denigrate the unfamiliar. This seems reasonable to me… I mean, there hasn’t been any good music produced since 2003.
For a long time I’ve accepted this state of affairs, though I’ve refused to condemn my love of music to my teenage past. I don’t believe music is a product for the young, as much as those who control the music industry may believe this to be so. Beyond that however, I don’t think about the medium as much as I used to and I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I feel that I’ve lost much of my authority to speak about popular music in any kind of critical way.
Now, that’s pushing things, just a little. When I consumed music in great amounts, particularly throughout my teenage years, my critiques of popular music forms I didn’t like where not necessarily of a notably high intellectual level. In fact, I mostly consumed popular music through a mechanic dominated by my own ideological perceptions and an emotional appreciation of the form. In that sense, I didn’t have much authority in the first place. Of course, we’re getting into sticky territory here, especially when talking about a popular cultural form. Do I really have to have a solid background in music theory to point out I think that the majority of popular music produced today is garbage? Surely the clear disposability of the medium lends itself to such criticism.
There’s also an additional level here that makes me a little uncomfortable, specifically the idea that my distaste for current popular music is driven as much by a growing generational gap as by anything else. My immediate riposte to that would be that I used to be considerably harder to please; if anything, my taste in music is considerably more populist now than it once was. You’ll notice however, that I am completely failing to get away from a personal understanding of music. This calls the notion of being critical into question, really. When I complain about the contrived shallowness of contemporary pop, I am not necessarily criticizing the form in the context of what has come before but am rather reacting negatively to what I see as an unopposed victory for commercial interest in a supposedly creative process. This is the constant. This is what drives me crazy. That opposition to commercialism in music, or at least the commercialism run rampant that has utterly corrupted the popular music scene and rendered plagiarism a virtue assuming you have the connections, derives from a personal interpretation of popular music’s function and importance more than a clinical interpretation of the form’s relevance in modern society.
This brings me to the concept of a personal musicology. Increasingly, I find myself wanting to engage with popular music once more and to write about it critically. I have little interest in acquiring a particularly substantial understanding of present-day popular music however and I lack the tools (particularly in the field of music theory) to analyze popular music in a manner that I would find satisfactory. Instead, I’d like to think about my own reactions to popular music and the evolution of the thought processes that feed those reactions: a musicology not of the self but of my self. This is of course pushing the limits of propriety regarding personal vanity just a little bit, but hey: this is the Internet and it’s the twenty-first century.
Having said that, there’s no merit to writing glorified diary entries and posting them to the Internet, though I’m not sure that’s possible anyway. I can’t simply recreate the reactions of my twelve-year-old self to hearing Radiohead for the first time or of my sixteen-year-old self discovering The Velvet Underground. It’s just as well, though. The truth is that writing essays based on how I view those discoveries now should be far more interesting. That’s the goal of this little series that I’m starting today: to go back to the start and make the journey back to the present anew, asking questions all the way. As I’ve already written here, I understand my appreciation of music to be driven mostly by ideological factors, but I’m looking forward to remembering the passion of my teenage years in particular with the context of my 20s already behind me. My personal musicology is not over, as much as I might believe that 2003 marked the end of my active participation in popular music as a medium. It continues to evolve. As an historian, surely I should study my past to understand my present? I hope you join me and I hope you find the journey interesting.