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The history of a music fan in four decades, part one

[The Manhattan Transfer - Extensions]

This month, I turn 44. I’ve been collecting music for about 81 percent of that lifespan. I bought my first album when I was 8 years old.

OK, it was my mom who caved into my whining about wanting that Manhattan Transfer album with the “Twilight Zone” song on it (Extensions, by the way.) She’s regretted it ever since. I think the last time she chided me for spending too much money on music was … three months ago?

When my collecting took off in junior high, I went through phases where I would dive deep into a particular style of music and play it to death on the family stereo. Every year, I would glom onto something new, then ditch it for something else. It was such a reliable metric, my siblings would ask, “What are you going to get into next year?”

In college, the phases started to grow longer and overlap to the point that I though I outgrew them. In reality, I was just figuring out what kind of music sustained the dopamine rush. I kept those around while I explored other things.

By then, I had figured out that anyone can like any style of music if you learn how to listen to it. When I got into post-punk music, my siblings hated being subjected to singers who couldn’t sing. They had been raised on a steady diet of radio pop and didn’t understand a lack of polish was exactly the point.

So to commemorate this birthday month, we’ll explore the various phases that marked my history as a music fan, starting our first decade with the 1980s.

New wave

[Duran Duran - Rio]I can’t say MTV influenced my music consumption because my parents didn’t subscribe to cable. But network TV attempted to ride the music video coattails with such shows as Friday Night Videos and Prime Time Videos.

It was music video that spurred my childhood interest in ABBA. And it was music video that got me into Duran Duran, Eurythmics, ABC, Tears for Fears, Huey Lewis and the News and Sting. I preferred the more theatrical videos made by bands from England and Europe than the song-and-dance numbers of American bands.

That steady diet of English bands set up an affinity for punk-influenced music that would set me at odds with my peer group. That didn’t stop me from trying to fit in.

Radio pop

In 1986, I started high school, and I wanted to establish an identity different from the one I had in junior high and elementary school. So for a time, I was listening to Club Nouveau, L.A. Dream Team Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and Janet Jackson.

But my conscience eventually won out. Some of the most popular hits played on the radio weren’t songs I really liked on first listen, and repeated plays didn’t make them any better. And the popular kids with whom I was trying to ingratiate myself? Turns out I didn’t really like them all that much.

“Hawaiian Electric” by Hiroshima

In 1987, Hawaiian Electric Co. commissioned a pair of television ads featuring music by jazz fusion band Hiroshima. It was my first introduction to non-Western instruments, and I was fascinated. Hiroshima was a staple on a new radio format for light jazz and new age. Basia, Enya, Spyro Gyra, Hiroshima — all different styles of music unified by mood. It was a diversity I’d been craving.

Musicals

[Andrew Lloyd Webber; Tim Rice - Jesus Christ Superstar]In my junior year of high school, my band instructor introduced me to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jesus Christ Superstar. Around the same time, a television broadcast of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George alternately bored and fascinated me. Jesus Christ Superstar led to CatsEvita and The Phantom of the Opera, while Sunday in the Park with George was the springboard to Into the WoodsSweeney Todd and A Little Night Music.

Sondheim and Lloyd Webber pretty much allowed me to break rank entirely with everyone in high school. I no longer felt a need to fit in. I would explore music that interested me, and the more it confused my cohorts, the better.

Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien

All throughout these years of exploration, I was taking piano lessons, but when I expressed interest in songwriting, those piano lessons became rudimentary lessons in music theory and composition. To take advantage of my large finger span, my teacher introduced me to works by Claude Debussy and Aram Khachaturian.

My dad also took a music appreciation course at a community college, and I used his textbook, Music: An Appreciation by Roger Kamien, as bathroom reading. Over time, I absorbed the names of composers, the eras in which they lived and the forms of music they composed. The section on 20th Century Music fascinated me in particular.

All these events came together when I ran across a description of Kronos Quartet in a music magazine, and my love for modern classical music was born.

Pulse! magazine

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]As my high school years drew to a close, a free magazine published by Tower Records, named Pulse!, became my bible. Pulse! introduced me to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Camper Van Beethoven, the Sugarcubes, the Replacements and Steve Reich. It published some of Adrian Tomine’s earliest comics, and one of its columnists spurred me to write about music. This blog owes a lot to Pulse!

Up next …

College would deepen my understanding of classical music, but when all the underground rock I was precociously consuming during high school became mainstream, I would find new ways to differentiate myself.

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The year in music for the graduating class of 1990

[Kronos Quartet - Black Angels]

I’m writing this entry ahead of time, but when it gets posted, I will have attended my 25th high school reunion. I graduated in 1990, a nice even number made all the more significant by its relative placement to a new century, let alone a new decade.

The musical identity of a decade doesn’t get established till two years into it, so until then, a lot of gambling happens among the tastemakers. Nielsen SoundScan was a year away from launching, which meant the Billboard charts in 1990 still relied on phone reports by retailers to determine its rankings.

That year, the chart-topping albums included MC Hammer’s Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl and Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Billboard created a new chart at the time to track what would eventually be known as alternative music. The songs on this chart would set the tone in the years to follow, but till then, radio spun hits by Wilson Phillips, Roxette and a newcomer named Mariah Carey.

For me, 1990 marked the year the foundation for my ensuing music collection solidified.

I stopped listening to radio two years before and relied entirely on magazines to direct my choices. In the days before streaming audio and widespread Internet access, I put a lot of faith in a writer’s ability to convince me to drop cash on something I’d never heard. Some of those gambles paid off, and some of them didn’t.

But it was the sense of discovery that provided that hit of dopamine on a malleable mind. Needless to say that kind of independence set me apart from everyone else in high school. My classmates were rallying around a shared experience. I was more concerned with finding something I could monopolize, perhaps even proselytize.

My new wave proclivities from freshman year evolved into a taste for what was called “college rock”. A friend ushered it in by playing Beelzebubba by the Dead Milkmen the summer before. Camper Van Beethoven, 10,000 Maniacs, the Replacements and Midnight Oil followed. And, of course, I remained steadfast to Duran Duran.

Kronos Quartet had introduced me to classical music, but Black Angels sent me down a path of study that would last the first half of the decade. The frightening timbres of George Crumb’s title piece and the anguish of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8 tapped into the uncertainty I felt about my own identity. That taste for dissonance sharpened when the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb led to John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz.

Some of my choices that year would prove prescient, as college rock morphed into the alternative rock made popular by Nirvana. I remember my sister telling me she was watching 21 Jump Street, and a character mentioned Camper Van Beethoven and 10,000 Maniacs. She wouldn’t have recognized either of those bands had I not brought their albums home to inflict on everyone in the house.

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Music may have been better back then, but it doesn’t mean I heard it the first time

[Chart: Evolution of music tastes in a person's 20s]

A study using listener data from Spotify confirmed what the Onion reported more than a decade ago: listeners stop seeking music once they reach their early ’30s.

For me, the Onion story mirrors my own experience closer than the conclusions drawn in the study. Right around 2005, I got exhausted trying to keep up with all the new bands. It really did feel like I was going through the motions, and at one point, I realized I wouldn’t get back all those hours listening to music that moved me only fleetingly.

So I pivoted, and a decade on, I can say I add maybe one or two new artists to my collection each year. Most of what I listen to now is catalog.

At the same time, I’m not sure I totally believe the idea that music was “better in my day”, as the study would like to claim. A lot of the catalog I’m exploring is music I didn’t hear when it first came out.

Rhino released The Complete Studio Albums by the Replacements, a band I’ve been listening to in bits and pieces till I dropped $40 on this set. Curiosity got the best of me during Record Store Day when I picked up reissues by Social Distortion and Happy Mondays with only scant research on Google Play to help.

Neneh Cherry, Ambitious Lovers, Ofra Haza — I considered buying their albums a long time ago but didn’t act till now.

Then there’s my deepening relationship with modern classical music, a genre I’ve been following for a quarter of a century. I’ve discovered quite a number of great new pieces, such as Gloria Coates’ Music for Open Strings, just by picking up a vinyl record that looked interesting.

Heck, I’m going back and listening to music I actually disliked the first time around. Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, AC/DC — my 18-year-old self is looking at my 43-year-old self with a very suspicious eye.

So while it may look like my tastes have entrenched, I’m still getting as much satisfaction from the discoveries I’m making now as I did when I first encountered the bands that would become my idols. It’s the same experience when I encounter newer artists such as Jason Isbell, Jarell Perry or Steve Grand.

I’m not stuck in the past. I’m exploring parts of the past I never got around to visiting.

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Music genres do not save us from male, white, corporate oppression

[Collectorz.com Music Collector genre picklist]

Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas does not file its CD stock by genre. The name cards indicate by color code the genre in which an artist primarily performs. But they’re all stocked in the same room.

To get to the John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, you’ll need to thumb through Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello. Compilations, soundtracks, world music and classical music are sorted separately, mostly out of taxonomic necessity. (Classical music, in particular, doesn’t lend itself easily to an artist/title naming convention.)

It’s a structure that I mimic with my own collection — compilation, soundtracks and classical get their own parts of the shelf, but everything else is sorted alphabetically by artist, regardless of genre.

For a long time, I’ve ignored genre as an attribute in the music I listen to. On an instinctive level, I recognize broad categories — Emmylou Harris and Renée Fleming don’t circulate in the same circles — but I try not to use genre as criteria for judgment. If anything, I tend to favor artists who blur them.

I use a database software called Music Collector by a company called Collectorz, and until recently, I used only four genres: Popular, Classical, Compilation, Soundtrack. (Seem familiar?) I recently decided to granularize that list to include more specific genres — rock, pop, country, soul, heck, even new age — and I reminded myself why I stuck to such overly broad categories.

Genres require judgement calls, and the traditional list used in most record shops reflect the kinds of individuals who would work there — straight, white males.

Let’s take the dichotomy between rock and pop. Rock, in your traditional music critic perspective, comes from a more authentic foundation than pop, or so it’s been perceived. A lot of calculation and commerce goes into creating pop idols, and rock musicians supposedly rally against that kind of prefabrication. So what about a guy like Steve Grand? He’s got a lot of guitars and butch posturing on his debut album. What makes him closer to Nick Lachey than to Neurtral Milk Hotel?

The relationship between rock and soul is even more contentious. This categorization is entirely race-based. Are you black? You get filed under soul. Never mind that Jarell Perry sounds more like Kate Bush than OutKast ever will. And what about Res? She released an EP of Fleetwood Mac covers.

Jazz is almost reverse discrimination. Yes, there are plenty of white jazz musicians, but the black musicians in the genre outnumber them.

The very idea of world music is Western-centric. Speak a language other than English? You are automatically a world artist. Not that I hear much Asian folk influence in the pop music of Utada Hikaru. Molotov certainly incorporates Latin rhythms in their metal hip-hop, but then so does Shiina Ringo.

Yes, certain music can be clearly classified in a particular genre. But what happens when artists confound expectations? Rock music is to guitars as pop music is to synthesizers. Is Björk a pop artist because she doesn’t have guitars on her albums? She has strings, so that makes a classical artist instead? No, ultimately we file her under rock because wearing that swan dress is not a marketing-driven decision.

The exercise of using a more granular genre list made me realize I’m pretty dumb to the nuances of each genre. What determines entry to the pop category? Use of drum machines? Sales figures? Audience size?

Is Duran Duran a pop band because they’ve sold millions of records? Are they a rock band because they play their own instruments and write their own songs?

All these judgements make genres a tiring attribute to attach to music.

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