Everyone knows that Tuesday is the day the new music comes out, and for my parents, June 4th, 1984 was the last great Tuesday of them all.
They had never been so ecstatic about a music purchase before, at least not since “The Big Chill” soundtrack was released, and that was a dogpile of re-packaged boomer nostalgia – this time, it was new music. After a giddy round-trip in the Dodge Omni to the Target in Cottage Grove, the plastic wrap was sheared from the LP sleeve, the album reverentially placed on the old Akai turntable, and the needle dropped on “Born In The U.S.A.,” the first track from the Bruce Springsteen album of the same name.
The Boss would command my family’s stereo for most of the summer, and his words and sounds dominate our mental inventories of that entire year, but it would be the last time, or at least the last time I could remember, that my parents bought a record the day it came out.
Years later, my dad was piqued by the Moody Blues’ resurgence, but was apparently just content to wait for “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” on the radio. My mom got into Ray Lynch (“Deep Breakfast” was being passed around a subset of literate Midwestern women like a carafe of white Zinfandel), and would still see Barry Manilow in concert, but she wasn’t into his new stuff. Not even Springsteen continued to hold court. For people as fanatical about “Born In The U.S.A.” as my parents were, there was no anticipated Tuesday afternoon scramble up to Target to procure “Tunnel of Love” in 1987; in fact, they never even bought it at all. At a certain point in their thirties, the music they already had was good enough.
While certain music snobs could make the argument that there’s a short distance between being into Barry Manilow and The Moody Blues and no longer being into any kind of music at all, my parents’ surrender is not that simple, unfortunately, and far more problematic. While they didn’t make the full transition into “music for people who hate music” (e.g. Jimmy Buffett) something even more disturbing happened: they simply abandoned the joy of buying a new album. As a couple, they were never again as happy and excited about new music as they were about “Born In The U.S.A.,” and they seemed okay with this.
There was no lone gunman here. Their friends were getting older and seemed to be going to concerts less, they had no consistent source of discovering new music other than mainstream FM radio, and, what’s more, new music was increasingly inscrutable (my parents didn’t care for new wave, disliked country, punk and grunge, hated rap, heavy metal, and techno, and to this day are blissfully unaware of skronk, trip-hop, dubstep, reggaeton, third-wave ska, musique concrete, and grime).
At the time they bought “Born In The U.S.A.,” my parents were both thirty-four; a year younger than I am now. They had a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, and owned a three-bed, one-bath rambler with an unfinished basement. They were in a bowling league. My mom was about to go back to college. They had wild drunken nights with other people in their thirties. They weren’t so different from many of my friends today.
Perhaps there was more music out there that they would’ve loved, but how much work would it have been, for two working parents, to find it? I certainly don’t recall any 34-year olds in my hometown who were buying R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” or Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains” in 1984 (two albums my parents later liked, when I got them into them) let alone stuff my parents would’ve hated like Big Black’s “Racer-X” or the Butthole Surfers’ “Psychic … Powerless … Another Man’s Sac.”
Everybody knows a person, or maybe several, who are in the know, and act as a bulwark against the intimidating flow of new music. Now, imagine not knowing any of them, and all you have FM radio stations, your memories from high school or college, and friends who have the same radio stations and pretty much the same memories.
It could be tough to sustain an abiding interest in new music year in and year out, particularly as it sounds less and less like the music you bought when you first started buying music. Maybe once, you stayed up all night reading the zines, playing the singles, and standing in line on Mondays waiting for the midnight in-store release parties, where the idea of winning a promotional flat as a raffle prize would have you smiling for hours. But that only matters if you still have the time to care.
This seems to be the factor among the people my age who have both kids and a waning awareness of new music. Despite a lifelong interest in music—and two brothers who are club DJs—one good friend of mine in California is just too damn busy with his job, his five-year-old, his home refurbishing projects, and other pursuits to keep pace with what’s new.
Though kids and jobs are prime culprits, they’re also a facile target; I know a married couple in West Virginia with two children and full-time jobs who have long been as up on new music as anybody. The main difference, of course, is that they prioritize it and truly enjoy the work. At a certain point (for most people, when they’re out of college) finding great new music does become work, and if you want to find your new favorite band before it costs over $15 to see them, it can really while away the hours.
Why should it be so hard to stay current? In this era of Grooveshark and live streaming college radio and untamed file sharing, it shouldn’t be such a struggle to love new music, neither the evolutions of the bands from our teenage years nor the newest hot 20-year-olds from Baltimore. To love something is to accept its changes, even revel in them, after all, and perhaps to fall out of love with new music means a failure on our part to change or accept change.
I suppose to enforce stasis is to enshrine the cultural past. And in ex-urb Minnesota, I grew up around a lot of this enforced stasis. I met a lot of no-nonsense Midwesterners who, by the time they were in their mid-thirties, decided that new music (among other things) just wasn’t for them. But where do we go from there? Are we doomed to mellow out and get over it? Flash forward fifteen years to a lawn chair, a beer gut, and the same goddamn favorite song?
Conversely, how much of the no-nonsense Midwesterners’ emotional reaction is actually an accurate reflection of the imperatives of the marketplace? Most new music, particularly by new bands, is aimed at teenagers, and Top 40 music has been blatant kid stuff since the dawn of time, which means that of course we’re supposed to grow out of most of it, and grow up with the rest of it, carrying our Madonna to battle against the next generation’s Lady Gaga. It sometimes takes a serious emotional experience or upheaval to dictate otherwise.
To note an extreme example of this, back in 2001, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV omental cancer. Dealing with a fatal illness, she got back into new music in a huge way, listening to stuff by Gillian Welch, Sarah McLachlan, Lucinda Williams, Beck (she really liked “Mutations” and “Sea Change”), Kimmie Rhodes, and the new output from Bob Dylan. It was a point of connection that my brother, my cousins, and I could now share with her, and it was wildly meaningful and awesome.
I don’t mean to say that if you experience a cancer diagnosis, you’re going to be suddenly motivated to buy the latest from LCD Soundsystem, but there’s a relationship of some kind between times of great personal change and our emotional dilation to music. Music, I suppose, even at its most retrained, is an expression of something that someone just couldn’t keep quiet, and in times of massive personal upheaval and joy, this form of expression has a sincere and subjective impact. To make a mix for a road trip or to have a song as a couple is to say, this means something; this is a conscious emotional tether to a dynamic time.
The question is, what’s the soundtrack for what comes next, when the dust and the young parents settle? Do we even want a soundtrack for days where nothing really happens? Are there fewer bands at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy? Or do they just play Radiohead’s “No Surprises” on repeat?
For every person who tells me that the 1960s were the apogee of popular music, or that everything in the 21st century sounds the same, or that the Telecom Act of 1996 presaged a nosedive in the quality of pop culture, I’ve started to wonder where they’re at in their life, and if maybe they don’t need to get their ass to a New Releases display in one of the last few record stores in the world before they die on their feet. Lester Bangs, in his 1980 essay “Otis Rush Mugged by an Iceberg,” ended a review of the one recent album that impressed him by writing, “It’s better than killing yourself.” Agreed, and finding that record, even if it’s just one, is worth the effort. Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.