My Disillusionment with Music (Revised Version)

Here is a wee article I originally wrote back in 2009. I’ve decided to edit and revise the fuck out of it and add a sort of epilogue/update.–  AFK, 8/3/13

I have an awful confession to make: I think I may be falling out of love with music — well rock music in particular, but that’s what I grew up on and for me there’s been little else.

It’s been quite a gradual process over the last few years, becoming more obvious since I moved to Nottingham in 2007. But try as I might I can no longer deny it. Maybe it’s just that I’m older now and I’m getting jaded about everything about everything I loved in my youth, all my former obsessions. The worst thing about this state of affairs is to compare my current mood of spent passion with a few years ago when I had a desperate almost pathological dependency on certain records. Records which I absolutely relied upon to lift me out of my despondency or gloom, out of myself when being myself wasn’t too much fun. All the time I was infatuated with a song I would treat it like it held some kind of essential truth about whatever was going on with me at the time, to which I had to keep referring back incessantly; for most of my life I’ve been very conscious of just how music was a mood
altering substance for me.

I had phases when I latched onto different records or bands or musicians, leeching off as much emotional sustenance as I could from them and then dropping them: my nervous reliance would eventually wear itself out fading from its initial intensity, through different stages till it reached a kind of bored indifference. So that most of the music I was obsessed with about 10 years ago I can take or leave now and that somewhat disturbs me. It now seems to me that I had a very unhealthy relationship with music. But I would always discover some new artist or album to rekindle the previous excitement once I had grown weary of a current favourite or even a whole genre of music.There would always be a replacement, even (at one point) the Replacements.

Right from the off, from when I started seriously getting into music, it was never a communal thing for me. Listening to music was almost exclusively a solitary pleasure. Like onanism it was something I got most out of alone and secluded in my room. The few times I ventured out from my sanctuary to a live gig I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I would go alone, because I had no friends, and just stand self-conscious near the front feeling my bladder filling up, unwilling to pass all the way through the crowd to go to the toilet.

As a kid I followed the NME (this was in the mid 90s just before it became completely unreadable) and kept an eye out for whichever bands were being hyped up as the brightest and best. A little later I started to consciously make more of an effort to seek out music I thought might impress my peers; but I soon enough discovered they didn’t care what obscure unlistenable rubbish I pestered them with, and that my musical tastes did nothing to endear me to them (precious little did actually, I was too far gone into my personal weirdness at that point).

See, I’d been labouring under the belief that the music you listened to spoke profoundly for who you were that it was just as much a matter of identity as the clothes you wore or who you hung around with. Indeed, for a lot of young people, music became the entry into a whole new cultural, tribal affiliation. Therefore given that it was potentially such an important part of your public persona, maybe even the key to a whole lifestyle, it was obvious that you had to really work at your taste in music, to cultivating it zealously and filtering out everything that didn’t fit in.

But that didn’t work out for me – I couldn’t use my musical acumen to compensate for my many asocial defects – so I abandoned most of my prior extra-musical criteria when it came to choosing what I listened to. Instead I decided that I would just follow my gut and seek out whatever gave me the most pleasure. In this way the realisation that I was impressing no one really became a liberating one and I resolved to spurn the shallow dictates of musical trends and fashions. Actually this turned out to be problematic for me: as music became a more and more intimate thing for me, more of an indulgence, it increasingly served to reinforce my already strong inclinations towards introversion and solitude.

At the time though it seemed to work out alright, I could listen to Coldplay, Limp Bizkit and other fun insincere throwaway shite all day (I still had some sort of quality control filter however and there was plenty of piles of steaming insincere shit that I stayed away from because it was no fun at all) and I didn’t need to pretend that I was doing it ironically since I’d given up evangelising about my music tastes: if no one cared about the cool stuff I listened to why the fuck should I be self conscious about my “guilty pleasures”. In fact no one cared about my music tastes full stop so fuck ‘em all.

Of course I couldn’t totally escape the influence of trend makers and hype merchants when it came to seeking out music to listen to, but I thought I was doing reasonably well in my attempts. Ironically it turns out I wasn’t too far off prevailing trends: the clamour to reappraise each and every musician who’d made anything halfway listenable any time during the last 50 years without regard to the intervening layers of critical orthodoxy coincided, perhaps not coincidently with my own such attempts.

What started to become really apparent though was that a lot of what makes rock music so compelling is related to its essential newness, to the ephemeral, disposability of it all. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s the statement that’s being made in the here and now, that will forever afterwards be tied to that particular here and now as it spins away into an ever hazier past, that gives or that gave ferocious life to so much of popular music. As joyous and wonderful as it is to listen to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ it can’t ever capture the thrill of hearing it when it first came out, and that impact of knowing how much of an almighty sneer Dylan was cocking at his audience’s expectations; similarly you can’t distil the wonder of the Velvets’ first LP into a pure aural experience separate from its seedy black and white New York milieu.

This music is *about* a certain time and place, it derived from a joy and recklessness of feeling that came from tramping down prior generations’ staid conventions and obsolete thought patterns, in a word it is disrespectful. Rock would be nothing, a heartless and soulless shell, without the sneering postures and attitudes of rebellion, the guttural promises of dissolution spat out in the face of an uptight establishment. I mean, it just isn’t Mozart or Mahler — whatever its pretentions are it can never have (for the most part) the same depth and it will never evoke the same breadth and range of emotions that great “classical” music does; it doesn’t have that kind of profundity or musical complexity going for it (and if there are a good number of exceptions to this, that’s all they are, just exceptions). At the same time modern rock music rarely ever really attains or even attempts to attain to the timelessness of folk music: precisely because at its core it is antagonistic towards its antecedents. The more it moves away from that spirit of nihilism the more tedious and artificial it becomes. The more it becomes a part of the same establishment it once strove to scorn and provoke — and ultimately the less it means anything.

Because in the end, the clothes and the haircuts these fuckers wear, their music videos, the legions of girls/boys they like to fuck and the drugs they gorge themselves on — all the debaucheries and the subsequent penitences (real or fake) — each aspect of the now clichéd rock mythos is an essential part of the whole performance, each is integral to understanding the art, to understanding why this music is so compelling and so awesome. This is why Bowie was such a genius; he understood all of this and then consciously, artfully, encompassed it in his art.

OK maybe it’s a lot more nuanced than what I’ve just spouted in the last few paragraphs, there’s jazz, soul, R&B, various hybrids of different strands of popular music that aren’t necessarily as focused on iconoclasm, but I still think that in the end the spirit of defiance should be and once was the engine of rock music and most popular youth culture from the start—and yes that rebelliousness was manipulated from the start but there was still some authenticity to it. And so I began to realise that my mission to extract as much joy as I could from the annals of recorded popular music, to listen to records on their own merits divorced from the immediate circumstances of their creation or inspiration, missed the point by a pretty large margin and that I had been doomed to failure from the start.

And then the more music I bought, downloaded, streamed, the more I gorged myself on just on the process of just gathering stuff that I could listen to later, the more I just got bored of listening to the music itself. A lot of stuff I listened to and if it didn’t have that immediate visceral impact the first time, I would just discard it and never bother listening to it again. Of course there were records that absolutely shone through amongst all the tiresomeness and that gave me much succour. But these were few and far between, and I was demanding more and more from those I did manage to find. But there really is no contemporary music that I can really get excited over, lose myself in again like I used to before – I keep hoping there will be and that I get reeled back into being a proper fan. Of course I love bands like the Cribs, the Fleet Foxes, and the Twilight Sad and I’ve really started trying to keep up with new music again. But I can never escape the feeling with these newer groups that they’re all retreading old ground: ground that’s already been retread at least once before. Take the two CDs from my collection that I’m currently most enamoured with: Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, and the Inner City compilation “Good Life: The Best of Inner City”. This is music that was created around 20 years old, it is part of the sound track of 1989, and yet it could have been released last week because sonically it hasn’t dated at all. And yet in 1988 or 1989 pretty much everything released that had been released in 1968 or 1968 (with some rare exceptions) sounded dated, it sounded *old* and of its time.

In fact what have been the main musical innovations of the 00’s? Essentially the big revolutions that have taken place have had little to do with how the music actually sounds or with new genres springing into being and everything to do with how music is formatted and distributed, with the CD fighting a pathetic last stand for the physical formats against MP3s and downloading – and consequently everything to do with how easy it is for folk to take a hold of and share music amongst themselves and thereby elude the grasp of the bloated and complacent music industry. And this has changed how we listen to recorded music, but more especially how we value it, first of all financially and then spiritually.

It is a bland truism that for most of the things in this world (the big exceptions being crack cocaine or heroin) the easier they are to access the less you tend to value them. Music is undoubtedly a case in point here. Scarcity lent whole albums, bands and even genres of music (e.g., Krautrock) a whole other aura of mystery and seductiveness; being elusive helped up their cache no end amongst anyone with even the least aspirations to trendiness. Apart from that I can personally relate far too many occasions when I bought an album or a compilation for the sole purpose of hearing just one song — even if I’d read elsewhere that rest of the record wasn’t up to much; as a result my shelves are now cluttered with this kind of stuff. Nowadays though I don’t bother about listening and making my own mind up about albums that are generally regarded as iffy. I can spare myself the tribulation of sitting through hours of mediocre music by finding the one or two songs I want to hear on youtube or spotify and playing the fuck out of them.

But there was a special kind of joy to be had from picking through racks and stacks of dusty CDs in charity shops or scouring badly lit indie record shops (I never got into vinyl so I was never cool enough to rifle through boxes of LPs or singles) in anticipation of finding something rare by a band or a musician you saw namedropped a few times in some old interview, a song you’d caught the tail end of on the radio and which was never played again or maybe even something dirt cheap which you wouldn’t normally buy but that might potentially open up a whole new genre of music for you. The thrill of the find often eclipsed the actual pleasure to be got from listening to the music itself. And infact you usually found fuck all, regardless you were buoyed up and sustained by the memories of glorious past finds. Now compare that with the modern day scenario where the name of a song pops up in your head and a few minutes later you’re streaming it on spotify, like I just did just now with the song Encyclopedi-ite by Sammy.

And speaking of abundance, thanks to the internet we now have ready access to music from every corner of the globe — Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas — so that most of the musical genres of the world nowadays have some kind of market outside of their traditional, previously limited geographical confines. The archives too are being constantly turned out in the quest for more reissue fodder, and we’re all hungry to discover neglected masterpieces, those records we dismissed back when it felt like there was a surplus of good music around. And all this on top of a modern day scene that although it may not be thriving still produces enough intriguing music that it can’t and really shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. In the end this all leads to a surfeit of choice, which can be kind of overwhelming – for me at least. There’s just too many things begging for your attention out there…in the end it just feels easier to not choose any of them.

Finally, of course, the other major factor that has helped to really fucked music up has been the total triumph of corporate cynicism, culminating in the co-option of nearly every different kind of music, and leading to the apparent paradox that the more money flows into an art form via corporate sponsorship the less everything is worth artistically. Obviously the men in suits have always had a major hand in things: it would be foolish to suggest there was ever a time when they weren’t standing somewhere off to the side pulling the strings and gleefully manipulating what was supposedly a spontaneous expression of youthful spirit and clamour, making sure that it was all ultimately beholden to the profit motive. Equally it’s impossible to deny that the marriage of business and youthful creativity and exuberance was ultimately responsible for some of the most wondrous, life affirming, superlative music ever recorded.

But the fact is that, whereas before there was some kind of struggle going on between the dictates of the bottom line in opposition to the imperatives of art, that battle is now truly over and was decided quite some time back squarely in favour of mammon. There were times when the corporations hadn’t totally consolidated their grip on music when musicians had money thrown at them and were still allowed a lot of leeway, with the understanding that sooner or later the record labels would recoup their money – without marketing everything to fuck and without the demand for instant monetary gratification. The Beatles, Hendrix, the Stones all were products of this kind of latitude. Turns out that all that time the corporations were busy working away, figuring out the optimal ways to manipulate youth culture to suit their own nefarious ends.Today corporate sponsorship is in effect a parasite leeching off of the credibility and the spirit of a youth culture, that once seemed to stand for more than the latest make of mobile phone, or clothes line or alcoholic beverage but which no longer can claim to. A subculture that once flowered precisely because it offered up an alternative to a over commercialised mainstream is now fatally compromised.

Most of the above was written way back in 2009 and things have changed a little since then. The fact is the big music labels are failing/no longer turning over a healthy profit and the major record store chains are almost all defunct. The old system is on the verge of collapse, chart music has almost nothing to redeem it nowadays, reality shows and a weird celebrity cult of personality seem to dictate what most people want to listen to. Perhaps the conditions are now truly germane for a reaction to this relentless banality, like they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn. And there is a kind of resurgence of the DIY ethic in response to the overwhelming shallowness of popular music. But to come back to my own personal disillusionment the purported subject matter of this piece: since I wrote (most of) this article, my attitude has softened somewhat at least to the extent that I now accept that music probably will never mean as much to me as it did during my teens and my 20’s that that whole level of passion has gone: I’ve had more time to ruminate over its place in my life. I’ve also managed to move on and develop other interests.  Maybe I’ve also become a bit less odd and less in need of music as a compensation for my feelings of isolation and loneliness.  More positively I find that I’m starting to be able to enjoy listening to music in a less obsessive way than used to be the case.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lynne says:

    You got to still listen to erasure !!!!

    I do agree with you in that the increased availability and diversity does undermine a value in the worth of the music but then i can see a retaliating arguement against this in that it has given people more choice and diversity to find their own needs. Coperate music existed before this onset of change and will continue with its conveyer belt music .

    I am similar in my attitude toward how music is emotionaly evocative and it lives alongside books. I have never been one to view it in terms of what would impress or not , i go by my tatstes and that is how it should be . Music is a better tool than an anti depressent but then it is also a depressent too but sometimes a safe way to feel those emotions. It is worrying though to think that you could find your time on a trail of that elusive sound ( oh i am thinking of the mighty bush ) and you will find more comfort in the past but then good music stays good i think .

  2. David O'Keefe says:

    Excellent, I really enjoyed this; this being your disillusionment.

    Have you read awopbopaloopbop by Nick Cohn (not the decent)?

  3. anask says:

    Cheers David…Nah not yet but I’ve put it on my reading list, need to read more Lester Bangs too come to think of it.

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