The Day Your Music Collection DiedBy J. Ryan Stradal
January 31, 2011
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.
Great article, J. (as usual)! I actually think about this issue all the time. My parents (mostly my dad) were really into new music throughout my childhood and it was a huge point of connection for us as a family – I really want to try to emulate his readiness to listen appreciatively to everything from Talking Heads to NWA.
As for me, I have a slightly different problem. I still keep up fairly well with the new independent stuff (maybe not the underground-cutting-edge-new, but at least the Pitchfork-KCRW-new) but somewhere along the way I completely lost touch with new pop music. Not much of a loss, you might say, but I think there actually is some value to at least having heard a line of music from Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, or Kei$ha. Being aware of even the worst top 40 stuff at least connects you to the culture, so now I’m trying to make myself do a little listening. Plus occasionally you do find the good stuff, hugely popular stuff you also like.
Then again, maybe that’s what having teenagers is for. My parents were way more aware of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany than they probably ever wanted to be, so maybe I can just wait until my now-toddler insists we play KISS FM every single car trip, as I once did.
I’m pretty much in the same boat, especially in regards to Top 40 music. I would have no idea what the top 10 songs in the country are — whereas when I was 14, I could’ve told you, even if I didn’t actually like them.
It might be fun, as your kids get older, to see if they actually get you into new stuff. Until then, enjoy the time you have where you can impose your taste on them. Even if there’s not always enough percussion in it to satisfy Beatrice.
Thank you so much for reading —
Well, if you’re a music nerd you’re not buying albums (new or old) because of the tons and tons of stuff you need to consume nowadays just to keep up. Ok, that’s not quite true. You are buying albums… on vinyl, after you’ve screened the mp3s.
Speaking for myself, in the 90s knowing about music meant following a few independent record labels, knowing which local bands were good and buying classic records at the rate of 1-3/month. All this could be accomplished by frequenting a decent record store on a semi-regular basis. These days, I meet people all the time who not only keep up with new music but know about and have heard (!) most if not all the seminal/important Krautrock, proto-punk, punk and post-punk, industrial, hardcore, post-hardcore, black metal, Sheffield IDM… you get the idea. This is A LOT of music. You can’t get a handle on it unless you’re constantly downloading, cost-free.
So in answer to your question, I stopped buying physical CDs/started interneting around 2006. I found the downloading thing really overwhelming and frightening, so was a bit of a holdout.
Fantastic comment, Melissa. This speaks to my remark about the necessity of knowing people (in person or in the blogosphere) who act as bulwarks against the incredible amount of music, new and old, out there. I had a similar experience in the 90s — and that was a lot of work. I remember buying albums without hearing one note of it first, somewhat often. As you say, we trusted the labels.
The web has made any song, catalog, and oeuvre awesomely accessible, to sample or acquire. Gone are the days when I had to drive an hour to a remote record store just to *order* an import single. Now, I can have those songs in about ninety seconds, and, like you say, I’m only waiting for the hard copy — if I want it.
I never have trouble buying new music.
But rarely is the new music I buy actually new to the world; it’s just new to me.
I endure plenty of abuse for it.
I’m the same way with books. I virtually never read contemporary work.
There’s simply too much earlier stuff that I haven’t read yet.
You should endure *no* abuse for this, and that’s certainly not the point of this piece.
There’s so much music out there already, and no one springs from their mother’s womb with a comprehensive knowledge of pop music history. There are jewels aplenty to be found in the years before we were born, and often we find them in whatever order they come to us. I would say, music that’s new to you is as good as new music if it inspires any sincere emotional reaction (but preferably a positive one).
I was just stunned by my parents, who got such joy out of an album, and then seemed to punt on having that experience ever again. I guess “Born In The U.S.A.” didn’t have to be “new” for them to be thrilled to buy it, but I thought it was significant that it was, and it added another layer to this experience that I wanted to peel away and examine.
Thank you very much for reading.
I’m in the same boat as Becky. I occasionally hear or read something contemporary, but there’s so much from the past that I’ve never before encountered.
Anyway, music has been going downhill ever since “Born in the USA”.
Nice to see that my parents weren’t the only ones who thought so!
There’s a ton of great music out there that, while it may not be “new”, will always be “new to you.” I found some of my favorite music of my life working backwards to the musicians that influenced the modern bands I liked.
Thanks for reading, David.
I spend many, many hours a month pouring through new music, and generally find two or three bands that really turn me on, after such a time investment. It’s completely worth it, too.
Like Becky, I also find lots of music that’s new to me, but that’s been around for awhile. That kind of music is particularly sweet, because it often means there’s an entire catalog of music waiting for me, should I find a song or sound that I really dig.
The new model of music distribution has diluted the talent, but that doesn’t mean that great, generation-defining music isn’t out there- we just have to look a littler harder. On the plus side, we don’t have to wait for record companies and DJ’s to tell us what’s hot and what’s not.
You, like Melissa, are one of those people that do a wildly valuable service. When I have and make the time to do the same kind of searching and sampling, I also find that’s it’s completely worth it, but having people like you and Melissa (who do the legwork) and turn your pals onto the stuff that blows discerning listeners like *you* away … it’s worth its weight in wax.
Agreed with your last statement, and to extend my sentiment, I think it’s great when our friends–however they discover music–take the place of those record companies and DJs. More choices and greater accessibility to those choices suggests a need for a well-rooted taste — or at least a taste that’s compatible with that of your pals. We thank you.
My childhood soundtrack as it came through my father’s Kenwood reel to reel system: The first three Chicago albums, Seals and Crofts, Simon and Garfunkel, Leon Russell, Harry Chapin, Neil Young, Beatles, Graham Nash solo albums, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Godspell soundtrack, and hour after hour of Gregorian Chants.
I spend a lot of time going through new music online as well. I probably download 200 songs a month. I delete a lot of them after a couple of listens when I realize that I hate them already. It’s funny how often that happens to me now, with bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Beirut who I thought were really interesting at first and then suddenly I couldn’t stand them.
Anyway, thanks for this piece and bringing me back to those early days of letting pop DJ.
Kenwood reel-to-reel. Awesome.
You just reminded me of the awesome responsibility that parents of small children have — whatever they play, their kids are probably going to be inescapably nostalgic for it later, and at very least have it burned into their brains. My favorite song as a kid, hands down, was “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover.” My mom played Paul Simon all the time, and that song was full of familiar nouns, and it it rhymed. That = kid-awesome.
Like you I also delete unappealing music even more readily than I once sold disappointing CD purchases back in the day. The difference now is that it’s cheaper.
Thank you for reading —
This is a lovely piece…
The portrait of your parents was perfect, I like your contrasting of them with our own generation.
I still the remember the excitement of buying a plastic-wrapped album and the surprise of any included bonuses like lyric sheets or…heaven!.. a poster!!
Now I get my new music mostly from my iphone app. I hear something I like the sound of in a cafe and tap my ‘shazam’ app and download it straight to my computer.
I couldn’t honestly say which I prefer.. the nostalgia aspect appeals to me, but the absolute easiness of the immediate download is quite amazing.
Thank you for reading — as always!
As if the amazing size of the cover art, and a probable lyric sheet weren’t enough, I *loved* the little surprises that were tucked in album sleeves. The cut-outs that were included with Sgt. Peppers? Oh, not even the same in a CD sleeve. And posters! Incredible!
Music is as accessible as ever — but now that we don’t have to stand in line for it on a Monday night, did we lose something?
Cut outs??? You got cut outs??? You are right – we have totally lost something…
I’m sure there were things even more interesting than that — didn’t Neil Young once include Topanga Canyon dirt in one of his LP sleeves? Or at least a mail-in offer to receive some?
” . . . lawn chair, a beer gut . . . ” These are my aims, JR, and I’m glad at last to have them out in the open (ahem).
Do you suppose that each generation will live the rest of its music-emotional life through the music up to their 30s…..but no later? Is it in the cards? Do we, thereafter, listen mainly for our emotional past, feeling that the good stuff’s all gone in our lives, the kid-rearing and mind-numbing jobs being the only thing to play itself out until we retire?
I think it’s deeper and more positive than that.
Related to what you suggest with your Mom’s example (” . . . there’s a relationship of some kind between times of great personal change and our emotional dilation to music”), it’s been posited that folks fall in love when their emotions are cresting, sharpened, at a distinctly different level than before. P’raps, then, the volatility of pre-practical, pre-plodding life’s when we fall in love—–and also when we fall in love with “our” music. After that, the crests change because we are less consumed with our own yet-unmet needs and expectations (read: sex, love, hyping for careers)—–we are busy supporting others’ needs (spouses, kids, bosses).
I’m so happy you chimed in — that’s absolutely correct. It *can be* deeper and more positive than that. What I (largely) experienced growing up by no means has to be the norm. What I observed as a kid is that my parents no longer seemed to take the time for the joy that music once gave them, and many other people their age seemed to be following suit. I was puzzled as to why.
Their lives were by no means complacent either — both of my parents returned to college as adults with kids, completely changed careers (my mom in her mid 30s, my dad in his late 40s), traveled, and had dynamic and intelligent friends.
You write: “After that, the crests change because we are less consumed with our own yet-unmet needs and expectations (read: sex, love, hyping for careers)—–we are busy supporting others’ needs (spouses, kids, bosses).” And I think that was it for a while — like I said in the essay, it *is* in large part a time commitment issue, and perhaps their joy is acquired in things less ephemeral than the latest Springsteen.
That said, I was happy to see, in my mom’s case, a wonderful re-ignition of that interest in music, whatever the cause.
This essay alone by no means answered all of the questions that inspired it, but many of the comments people have made have supplied perspectives that fill in many of the blanks.
Thank you, Judy, again.
I didn’t see these comments before I posted mine below. Very articulate, both of you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how people’s relationship to music often changes as they age. Kids, jobs, etc. undoubtedly count for a lot, but I think there might be an ineffable connection between youth and pop music–using the term pop music in its loosest possible sense. There’s something about the soundtrack playing while you’re discovering who you are, what the world holds, how good or bad sex can be, how complicated love can be, how it feels to thrash your sweaty body against scores of others. As we get older and bogged down, or just more measured, the music that brings us back to those profound and ecstatic moments is going to be hard to top. And I’d say mid-thirties is sort of the end of youth, even for people like your parents who were already doing the house-and-kids thing. Were they still going out drinking with their friends in their 40s?
That said, I still search out and download new music. There was a lull in there when I had a kid and quit hanging out with musician types and going to shows, but then along came iTunes and Pitchfork and Pandora, which make it pretty easy. It’s just if I try to listen at home, the kids are sure to come along and put on Lady Gaga or Michael Jackson or someone called B.o.B., who actually has a couple pretty good songs.
I think that’s true for an awful lot of people, and they’re more than fine with that, because their life is more (as you point out — with a superb and perfect word) measured. I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but as a kid I was nonplussed when my parents apparently hit a wall where interest in new music just stopped, and being that I’m about their age when it happened, it’s been on my mind as well.
When new experiences are less frequent and experiences in general are less emotionally climactic (through having been there before) the emotional hyperbole of a lot of pop music doesn’t translate as much, and people find both emotional and artistic edification in other things. I certainly look back at some of the music I loved as a teenager as “overwrought” and I sure wouldn’t have said so then.
That said, in additional to sampling from the digital universe, it’s great that your kids are getting you into some new stuff. I remember when Outkast was blowing up years ago and I heard that my dad’s neighbors exercised to it. I thought that was kind of awesome.
Ultimately, while one’s reason for loving music can change (and probably should) I hate to see a love for music become a casualty of maturity. There’s a lot of things I’m looking forward to that are going to need a soundtrack.
Thank you for reading.
I can’t imagine ever not being into music. If anything, my tastes became significantly broader and more catholic as I approached 30, and now at 31 my collection is the most diverse it’s ever been, a far cry from my days as a grunge kid in the early 90s. Either new-new or new-to-me, doesn’t matter. I love the hunting for new stuff, be it in the racks of my favorite record shop, on iTunes/Bandcamp etc., the city library (hot tip: libraries often have some great, interesting stuff in their musical archives, enough to justify taking a look at the catalog) or just by heading out to see a local band that’s been receiving positive word-of-mouth. If I’m home, and I’m conscious, the odds are good there’s music playing.
I wonder if this might be my reaction to growing up in a house the was largely musically stagnant. Neither of my parents listened to much of anything recorded after 1980 or so, aside from the occasional release by Neil Young or Bob Dylan or one of the folksingers my mother liked. I was about as musically unhip a child as you could find until the alt-rock really broke onto the scene in 91-92, and sometimes I think my predeliction for finding new stuff is a prolonged act of rebellion against that childhood. But hey, it beats the shit out of a drug habit.
It definitely does, Matt. Thank you for reading.
As you could probably tell, my music upbringing was somewhat similar to your own. My brother has been a lifelong musician (singer & occasional guitarist in a metal band) and I’ve been in three bands myself over the years, in addition to both of us having sizable and constantly growing music collections. Amazing considering how much Manilow we experienced in our formative years.
Also — great call on the library.
My dad was always into a wide variety of music — and I’ve inherited his collection — and he’s probably the only person I know who had a ‘celtic’ section next to Aphex Twin and ‘ambient’ next to Springsteen next to Gillian Welch next to Jethro Tull next to Louden Wainwright next to Ani DiFranco. Our tastes didn’t always overlap but they overlapped enough.
And as far as Jimmy Buffett goes, I always gave my parents a pass on liking him because they grew up in Miami and saw him playing tiny dive bars before all the Parrothead business started.
I’m a hopeless completeist, so while I may not catch onto “new” stuff with the same frequency as I once did (my disposable income doesn’t allow for it anymore), you can bet I’m ready to buy the newest album from my favorites. I still buy CDs and vinyl though because I’m also a hopeless dino. My mp3 downloads tend to be of the free variety — whenever Filter or somebody offers them. I like having liner notes to study. I like browsing in the stores. The bargain bins are often a treasure trove.
The only mp3 “album” I’ve bought was actually an EP from Glasvegas because they weren’t releasing it on CD in the US. Or if they were, it was only certain stores or something like that. I don’t remember the exact circumstance.
I strongly dislike music snobs. Maybe I used to be a bit more snobby, but certainly not anymore. I can’t deal with the pretentiousness that is Pitchfork. I like the bands I like unapologetically and wholeheartedly and screw anyone who thinks they’re allowed to give me a hard time about it. I don’t have time for people who spend so much energy bringing other down rather than just enthusiastically talking about what they like.
But I’ve also been working my way backwards — the tributaries, as I like to call them, to what I like today. Old British rock, 80s stuff I ignored the first time around, etc. I still buy some new stuff though — like Glasvegas, aforementioned, whose first album came out just a couple years ago. Florence + The Machine. And yes, I like Lady Gaga. But I don’t worry so much about being “first” anymore. I just want it to be good.
Thank you for the thoughtful observations and recollections — you were lucky to grow up in such a house, time & place!
And oh, I love liner notes too. What a lost art. The Mothers Of Invention’s “Freak Out” is probably my all-time favorite for sheer entertainment factor, and who can forget George Frazier’s essay “The Warlord of the Weejuns” in Miles Davis’ Greatest Hits??? I also dig what Radiohead did in their Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP and the artfulness of Rachel’s “Handwriting” on Quarterstick (and virtually everything that came out of FireProof Press) and … I could go on and on and on.
Once again, thank you so much for reading, Sara!
People grow older and develop other interests. They get into film, art, books, and travel. They meet other people for whom music is not their primary focal point. They become ‘well-rounded’. They fall in love, get married, have kids. They put energy into their careers, which sometimes consume most of their waking energy. And by this time, the person who practically ran home from the record store clutching that copy of Doolittle in their hands is but a wistful memory. A few of us even go so far as to disown that part of ourselves, becoming ‘mainstream’ through a kind of lazy habituation, or in some cases, conscious disavowal (e.g., the case of Zebraman from Heavy Metal Parking Lot). For most of the rest, the connection to music is a way to reaffirm one’s youth via the music that one enjoyed during that time. So yes, musical curiosity is a young person’s enterprise, at least in the realm of popular music. It is really only in our teens and very early twenties that we are able to go ‘all the way’ with music, primed as we are during those years for pure emotional experiences. And I still love discovering new bands, but it’s ‘different now’ at 40 than it was at 20.
Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comments. I might agree with you that new music for me now might be more of an intellectual than emotional exercise (for better or worse, many of us evolve from creatures of reckless passion into more sedate beings of thought) and the new music I choose and what I get from it has naturally evolved as well.
It’s true that the unabated enthusiasm of my teenage years has dimmed, or progressed into patient curiosity, but I don’t merely retain adoration for the sonic tethers to an emotionally vibrant past. I still *love* new music, I still get joy from it, and that hasn’t been/can’t be replaced by the edification of another artistic medium. At least not yet.
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