Monday, January 17, 2011

When Music Matters Most

My blog post on The Cure’s Disintegration has prompted some great feedback via comments, Twitter, and email. One of those personal emails was from my good friend and musical confidant Jeff. I’m of the mind that if he had intended for the contents of the email to be shared with a wider audience, he would have sent it as a comment on the blog, but there are some sentiments in his email that I think are worth exploring a bit and using as a jumping off point.

Jeff agreed with my observations on the importance of specific albums being tied to the fervor of one’s fandom at the time of its release, as well as the ties between songs and memories. But to me, his most interesting observation was that “all of the really memorable and important albums [in his life] are from high school and college.”


This is an idea I have always maintained. I wear my sentimentality on my sleeve, and I have no problem looking backwards in order to understand my present. There is something to be said about that period in your life – college in particular, that carries immense weight in shaping who we become as adults.


Jeff and John and I all went to college together, and they, along with Jen and Erin, were my closest friends that freshman year at Bowling Green. John and I have talked at length about the importance of the first year of college. Never before or after in one’s life do we find ourselves away from home for the first time, thrown into a hyper-real mini-society that combines all the cliquishness of high school with the quasi-responsibility of young adulthood. Everything is dramatic. Every decision is the Most. Important. Decision. Ever.


Because of this, at least among my friends it seems, the music of that era is imparted with more significance than music from any other time in our lives. Meeting and dating my wife, getting married. All arguably more significant periods in my life, and music accompanied them all, but not in the way it did when I was 18 and 19 years-old. I have mentioned before how U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind is the only album I can think of that entered my adult consciousness with anywhere near the importance of the music from my youth.


Last year, I wrote about that significance this way in a blog post about Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine: “The closest any other album has ever come to being as fundamentally meaningful to a period in my life is U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Released just after my 30th birthday at the end of 2000, this collection of songs became the soundtrack to our return to Ohio after ten years away, our trip to Paris, the birth of our son, our friendship with Jeff and Anna, our post-9/11 trip to New York City in December 2001, and on and on. But it was different, in that this was a collective soundtrack for experiences Tracy and I shared. And if you’re lucky, your thirties inhabit a very different worldview from that of your 19-year-old self.”


From a practical perspective, I don’t think we consume music in the same way we once did. Listening to Disintegration over and over as I was writing about the album, I recognized that as each song was ending I knew instinctively the next song’s opening notes. I anticipated them, and took comfort in that familiarity. I think that comes from being a product of the last generation to listen to music on LPs and cassette tapes. There was no “shuffle” or downloaded singles. It wasn’t until compact discs that we had a random play option outside of mix tapes (which, of course, are set playlists anyway). And now with digital downloads we live in a singles driven, “album optional” world.


While the way music is consumed affects what is listened to (i.e., our downloadable world lends itself to singles versus whole albums), that doesn’t diminish the importance of the music to today’s youth. I’m sure they are hit just as hard by “their” music today as we were at the same age by “our” music.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

It’s great to see this follow-up to your writing about Disintegration.

My transition from just listening to the latest singles on the radio to being engaged by the music of specific artists started when my sister sent me a tape when she was away at college. Side A was Life’s Rich Pageant by R.E.M., while side B was The Queen is Dead by The Smiths. What a change of pace from Bryan Adams, .38 Special, and The Outfield…but somehow, the music struck a chord with me.

I guess the genre really didn’t matter…it was the transition and decision. Instead of flipping on the radio, I started playing what I wanted to hear…it was my own soundtrack that went along with the story unfolding before me. Now, the events and music are tied together in my memories. Sure there are times when a cacophony of sound underlies certain memories (on the bus to cross country races, only a few wanted to hear No New Tail to Tell by Love and Rockets, but our little group did not want to hear Eye of the Tiger either…turning up our boom boxes of the day did little to solve the problem. Fortunately, we found common ground in The Police, New Order, and a few other bands).

The connection between the music and memories is certainly more strongly coupled to my high school and college days…I think the fact that during that time“Every decision is the Most. Important. Decision. Ever.” is fundamental to the discussion. Likewise, the advent of iPods and Pandora and XM Radio have disconnected the current events in life from the soundtrack. I am no longer in the soundtrack making business, but I still like when those tracks get played and give me a chance to reflect on those oh so important decisions we made every day.