After the catharsis of explaining those pesky panic attacks I get towards the end of every year, when it becomes clear how much music arrived in the past year to wide praise, only for it to be shunted off to the side in a day or two and replaced by another highly touted musical testament, I came into this year thinking, “This time, it will be different.” I felt that I had gained a better sense of how to keep track of new releases, as well as a better sense of how I wanted to prioritize which of these I would listen to. My hope was that this meant I had achieved a heightened state of knowledge that would guide me to new music I would like, and give me the motivation to actually listen to it, to.
I succeeded, but only to a point.
Here’s the thing about keeping up with new releases: it’s impossible. I’m not sure it’s possible in the physical sense – there might literally not be enough time in a day to listen to everything, and if you’re like me and insist on preserving some sense of balance in your life, you can forget it. I’ve been able to listen to a handful of new songs and albums/mixtapes from time to time, but I find that, in an effort to manage the raw chaos that bubbles up in my psyche when I’m forced to express a preference, I’ve been very selective about what I decide to check out. I suppose this is natural, but it feels counterproductive. Ultimately, this whole thing is an exercise in stretching out of my comfort zone, and if I’m only bothering to listen to stuff I think I’m gonna like, how much am I really doing that?
On top of all that, whenever I’m hearing something for this first time, the memory of the experience doesn’t really set in my brain. I get the impression of the experience, and I can tell, in the most general sense, whether or not I liked the song in question, but I don’t actually remember all that much about the song in itself. The hooks don’t actually catch in my brain until the second listen. So I can’t actually tell how much I like a given piece of music until I’ve listened to it at least twice. This, as you can imagine, slows me all the way the hell down.
I have it in my head that the professional music-knowers who roam this bastion of reason and decency we know as the internet are able to form coherent opinions after their first listen, more or less. Perhaps this isn’t true, but I don’t know how you can do so much as bullshit your way through a 500 word write-up of a new album without having a pretty decent idea of how much you liked it and on what grounds you’d recommend it (or not recommend it, as the case may be.) Maybe it’s an experience thing, but I have plenty of experience listening to music. When I was a teenager, my headphones only came off when I didn’t have a say in the matter, and this continued to be the case through college and my 20s. If it is in fact possible for me to level-up as music-listener, so to speak, I can scarce imagine how that wouldn’t have happened yet.
In addition, my listening habits themselves have changed. I still don’t have a job, and even if I did, it would no longer necessitate a 40 minute commute on public transit. 40 minute public transit commutes, as you can perhaps imagine, are prime opportunities for getting a bunch of listening in. Absent such a stretch of time in a place where large groups of people attain relative social harmony by tacitly agreeing to ignore each other, I need to make time for listening.
This is increasingly hard to do. I’m older, slower, and softer, and no longer feel compelled to have something bouncing between my ears at the loudest possible volumes. More and more, I just want some dang peace and quiet. On top of that, because I’m approaching this listening project as some sort of self-improvement project, it often feels like work, and there is no thing that is work that doesn’t suck from time to time. I used to listen to lots of music as a way to relax and have fun, but now I seem to have it in my head that my music listening habits form an aspect of my broader duty to society.
And that’s insane! Listening to music is consumption. It is a thing I do by myself, for myself, and it cannot contribute in any meaningful way to making the world a better place. Nor does it really stretch me out of my comfort zone. Even if I’m trying to expand my awareness of different kinds of music, the activity in itself is something I am intimately familiar with. If I wanted to do something that actually removed me from familiarity, I would train to run a marathon. Or volunteer for a political campaign. Or attempt to make gin in my bathtub. Or something. You get my point.
Nor does listening to new music help me relate to others in any meaningful way. Maybe new music is a better topic of conversation than older music, but merely having an opinion on the latest thing does not rescue me from being myself. I am now, and always have been, an awkward, introverted, high-strung dork. I’ve been at peace with this for several years now. I feel no further compulsion to improve myself in this aspect, and that in and of itself feels fucking great. Similarly, my musical preferences in no way prove that I’m not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or in any way otherwise proves the quality of my immortal soul or life essence or whatever the fuck. So why do I insist on doing this? I can’t help but feel that, in viewing my quest to listen to more new music as some kind of work, I’ve lost the thread. The whole point, really, is that new music is good because all music is good, so therefore I should be familiar with more stuff to like.
But pop culture has an element of competition baked into it. If you live in America (and any other capitalist or capitalist-influenced society), your experience of pop culture comes pre-saturated with ad campaigns and marketing blitzes, and the central idea that of all of these is that you don’t want to miss this thing. This thing, whether it’s a new album or a movie or a TV show or a book or a play or a video game or an art exhibit or whatever the fuck it actually is will be so much fun or so deep and so meaningful and it’s gonna change your fucking life, man, and our fleet of marketing goons and ad creatives and board members is just gonna be so bummed out if you miss it, in no small part because no one else is going to miss it, and you don’t want to be the dorky kid who doesn’t know what everyone else is talking about, do you?
When this happens on a smaller scale, so small that it’s your friend telling you about this thing you might like, there’s still the barest hint of this mentality to it. It’s pleasure in a package. The FOMO-driven “or else” implication might not be there, but this is just how we talk about these things. We’ve been marketed to for longer than our memories extend. Even if you’re trying to be a halfway decent socialist like I am (and failing, but that’s a conversation for another time), this makes it hard to mentally step outside of the commodification of everything. The commodification makes pop culture consumption into a competition. Who has seen, read, and heard the most? Who knows the most about what people are doing with their free time, and what the kids are doing? Who is the coolest? Who lived their life the best? Who did it all, and did it all the most?