Steven: Hey Noel, I love writing about music for a living. But I’ve come to hate talking about music in casual conversation, particularly with people—many of them friends—around my age. That’s because these conversations rarely have anything to do with actual music; instead, it’s all about how such-and-such band is overhyped or a total rip-off of something that was popular years ago—back when we were teenagers, essentially—and how this indicates that music ain’t no good no more.
“How much music sucks today and why” is my least favorite conversation topic not involving politics, religion, or gross (not in a hilarious way) bodily functions. Whenever it comes up, I’m forced to confront an uncomfortable fact of life: I am surrounded by old people, and if I’m not careful, I could become one of them.
More than any other branch of the pop-culture tree, music is associated with childhood. It’s something many of us discovered as we were discovering ourselves, providing a set of attitudes, poses, and even clothes for us to try on during our formative years. It was like acquiring an instant personality kit. Music made us feel like individuals, and yet also part of a group with people we could instantly relate to, or wanted to relate to. Just as important, music drew a line in the sand against everything we didn’t want to be, which was usually easier to figure out than who we really were.
Eventually, everyone grows up, and hopefully sheds whatever costume they wore to make it through puberty. But the power of those early music experiences remains. It’s telling that most of the entries in our My Favorite Music Year series—including some that are coming down the pike—are about years that took place at a turning point in the writer’s youth. Even for a lifelong music fan, it’s hard to top that initial impact of an artist, song, or album hitting you in just the right spot for the first time. (I certainly can’t argue against that after writing a sprawling 10-part series on the music of my teen years.)
I’m 33, which means many of my peers are married with kids, mortgages, and lots of other important real-life stuff that takes precedence over finding new bands to like. Even for a professional, following new music takes a lot of time and effort. Not only is there a lot to wade through—usually dozens of albums in an average week—but music trends are rapidly changing. Following new music requires the ability to appreciate many different flavors, and the willingness to go wherever the prevailing winds might carry you. Genres go through creatively fertile periods, buoyed by top-flight artists committed to exploring the possibilities of particular sets of sounds. You have to be willing to wade into unfamiliar waters to find the most exciting artists, and that can be tough for older listeners who are accustomed to music with firmly established parameters. Sometimes, it’s just easier to stick with what you know.
I get that. What I don’t get is the hostility that new music sometimes engenders among aging fans. I’ve chided friends who grew up on punk and indie music for turning into what they always hated—nostalgia-happy, past-worshipping hippies—because they can’t consider the latest buzz band without going into the same tired rant about how artists today don’t have “edge,” “relevance,” or “originality” by comparison with some overly idealized group from their past. I find that this opinion tends to say more about the listener than the state of contemporary music, which is too vast to be summed up by such sweepingly reductive statements.
I think this whenever I read yet another broadside about how today’s indie rock “doesn’t really rock” or whatever. Based on what? Based on your inability to locate bands that make you feel exactly the way you did when you were 15? Let me save you some time: You aren’t going to find those bands, okay? Because you changed. I guarantee you that somebody somewhere is making a record just as transformative as anything you grew up with; it’s just that you have lost the ability to hear (figuratively and perhaps literally) those records for what they are.
Noel, you’re a little older and much, much wiser than I. You still regularly review records for The A.V. Club, but based on your Popless series, I know you’ve had some misgivings about staying as engaged with newer music as you once were. Do you think our ability to appreciate new sounds begins to atrophy as we age, even if we stay up to date with other aspects of pop culture? If so, why does it happen, and what can be done to stop it?
Noel: First off, let me say that I sympathize with what you’re going through. I remember when I was in my 20s, getting irritated at newspaper columnists—not music critics, but sportswriters and editorialists—who complained that rock ’n’ roll hadn’t been any good since about 1984, and that no one was making music like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones anymore. Meanwhile, I’d look at my stack of CDs and find dozens of young bands that could’ve aptly been described as “Beatlesque” or “Stones-y,” plus dozens more bands specializing in the kind of bright, traditional, melodic sounds that I know these writers would’ve liked. I realized that what these writers were really saying is that they weren’t finding music they liked on the radio, or on MTV, so they’d stopped looking altogether.
I vowed never to become one of those proudly out-of-touch writers, and by and large, I’ve kept that promise. I still listen to every CD or audio file that gets sent to me, and I pursue leads whenever I hear about music that might be up my alley. Just last week, in fact, you posted a link on your Twitter feed to a Nitsuh Abebe Pitchfork essay, and after reading it, I bought everything I could find by Ponytail and tUnE-yArDs, two acts with which I was largely unfamiliar.
But I’d be lying if I said I were as actively engaged with keeping up as I was a decade ago. Honestly, I find that when the end of the year rolls around and I look at my colleagues’ best-of lists, I’m often shocked by how many names I don’t recognize. (Though I’m less shocked with each passing year.)
Like I said, some of those unknown names, I do follow up on. (I must give another hat-tip to you for turning me onto Call Me Lightning last year, for example.) And, like I said, I try not to be proudly ignorant. But at the same time, as a nearly 41-year-old with a wide range of pop-culture interests, I often fall more in line with your peers’ way of thinking about new music: that it’s not worth the time to slog through it all anymore.
Let me offer a couple of reasons for why we may feel the way we do:
1. It’s a defensive reaction. As annoyed as you are by middle-aged folk dismissing everything new, I’d say we middle-aged folk are even more annoyed by younger rock critics pissing on the canon. Every time a hip music publication publishes an “overrated” list, or a young critic mentions on Twitter that he’s never listened to Patti Smith, or a reviewer uses “sounds like Steely Dan” as a pejorative, or terms like “dad-rock” get tossed around, we oldsters can’t help but take umbrage. If a writer takes the time to connect a piece of new music to its lineage—rather than dismissing that lineage out of hand—I’m more inclined to give the album an open-minded, respectful listen. But if I’m told that it’s amazing because it’s not some boring, old-fashioned rock, pop, soul, or rap record, my first impulse is to listen to it and take it down a peg. As someone who’s been an obnoxious young rock critic before, I understand the “kill yr idols” impulse, and the need to champion the new at the expense of the old and/or established. But it’s also because I’ve been through that phase that I take bridge-burning less seriously. There comes a time when stumping for music just because it sounds edgy, noisy, or challenging starts to seem silly, while the desire to stick with the familiar becomes more appealing. And being mocked or lectured because your tastes have settled a bit tends to make the aging music fan want to lash out “these kids today.”
2. Maybe music really isn’t as good as it used to be. No, wait, hear me out on this one. I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of good young musicians out there, and I’m not saying that the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s weren’t chockfull of schlock. But it’s the natural process of popular culture to weed out the worst from earlier eras, and elevate the best. And just beyond the established “best” (the Beatles and Stones-level acts, in other words), there are so many fine bands and albums that never got their full due. Music buffs could spend the rest of their lives just discovering what they missed from their own lifetimes. By contrast, I’m frequently disappointed when I try out one of the “best of the year”-type records that my younger colleagues are touting. I find I’m hearing a lot of unfocused dissonance and sloppy performances these days, and while I’m not opposed to raw-sounding music when it’s inspired, passionate, or tuneful, I don’t know that some of the most-hyped young bands are doing anything new enough to compensate for their limited skills as songwriters and musicians. And even with the ones who can play, I often get tripped up by how much they sound like older, better bands.
Look, I’ve gone on record in the past as saying that originality is overrated, so I’m not going to hammer away too much at new songs that sound like old songs. If there’s any kind of personal spark to it, I’ll back it. I’m just saying that I understand where your peers are coming from if they’d rather listen to the Pixies, or Pavement, or R.E.M., or Captain Beefheart, or Stephen Stills, as opposed to some band of twentysomethings that resembles one of those older acts, only with songs that aren’t as immediately arresting. I also think that writing about music, and being engaged with a local scene the way I know you are, may make a difference in your attitude, for reasons I’ll get back to later.
First though, I want to throw this back to you, Steve. Why do you think it’s so important to stay current? I ask this of you in particular because I know you’ve been vocally skeptical about a lot of well-liked musicians of the past decade—Arcade Fire, for example—and because I know you’re as drawn to older music as I frequently am. (I believe I have you to thank for encouraging me to give Poco a try a couple of years ago, for example.) What do you think your friends would miss if they just shut down and didn’t actively seek out anything released after, say, 2010?
Steven: I don’t know if it’s a matter of staying “current” as much as staying vital, which to me means continuing to grow and explore. I see so many people my age sticking with the music they liked in high school and college, and not only not pushing beyond it, but actively throwing rocks at artists they haven’t really given the time of day. Which, again, I find weird because it’s not like these people are also content to just re-watch Pulp Fiction and Happy Gilmore, or re-read The Catcher In The Rye. This arrested development is specific to music.
I’m with you on exploring music of the past. On balance, I probably listen to more “old” music than new, just because there’s so much more music that fits under the “old” banner. But I don’t really think of that music as “old.” To me, anything I’ve just discovered is “new,” like Eddie Harris’ 1968 album High Voltage, which I just picked up last week after researching the jazz saxophonist for our Beastie Boys Inventory. But I firmly reject the notion that “maybe music really isn’t as good as it used to be.” To me, that’s like saying “food isn’t as good as it used to be.” Maybe it’s just your diet that needs work.
People like us split music into genres and eras, but in reality, music is a continuum, formed by a long chain of artists and songs that—if you choose to follow it—will take you deep into the past or carry you into the future. Listening to “old” and “new” music side by side, in the present tense, re-affirms this view. For me, when an artist echoes another artist from 20 years ago, I’m hearing traditions being revived and re-shaped, sometimes dramatically, other times more subtly. But it’s all part of a journey through music that’s incredibly rewarding if you don’t allow tastes you established in the 10th grade to hem you in.
Okay, now I’m really starting to sound like a full-of-it music critic. You’re right, writing about music obviously influences my opinion. It’s my job to listen to new records, so unlike most people, I get lots of free music, and I’m paid to hear it. I’m actively engaged in writing about the evolution of music—how it’s changing, how it’s innovating, how it’s staying in one place—which clearly makes my experience different than that of the average person who just wants something to entertain him on the drive home from work.
Still, I keep coming back to the same question: If it’s worth caring about new films, new TV shows, and new books—I assume A.V. Club readers care about these things—why does new music so often fall by the wayside for pop-culture omnivores as they grow older? Why is “slogging” through new music no longer worth it, but plopping down 20 bucks for this week’s big (probably shitty) release at the Cineplex is considered a worthwhile investment? I feel like the continuum perspective is common among fans of other kinds of pop culture, and yet with music, we’re still tied to our own childhoods. Why?
Noel: Maybe it’s that we just process music differently from movies or television. I’ve watched my favorite movies up to 10 times, which is maybe a tenth as much as I’ve listened to The River or Double Nickels On The Dime. I go through phases where I get burned out on, say, Joy Division, but then a few months later, all I want to do is listen to Joy Division, for like a solid week. I don’t need to hear anything new, so long as I keep having that reaction to music I’ve loved in the past. On the flipside, as much as I adore the films of Robert Altman and Brian De Palma, I can go years without watching Nashville or Blow Out and barely feel a twinge.
Also, current movies and current television are frequently more a part of the cultural conversation than current music—or at least good current music. The musical acts who have a significant cross-media presence tend to be folks like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who are easy to grasp without my having to spend hours poring over their albums. But if I want to keep up with what people are saying about The Social Network or Justified, I can’t just watch a trailer or see a clip and expect to come across as well-informed. It feels more essential in some ways to keep up with movies, TV, and books.
That said, I see what you mean about staying vital, and it’s something I worry about. I go back to what I said earlier about not wanting to wear ignorance as a badge of honor. I see that in the other areas of popular culture I cover as well: Movie critics who boast about never watching TV are sometimes suckered in by films that are no better than the average episode of a network procedural; TV critics who aren’t big movie buffs sometimes undervalue the subtler visual and tonal pleasures of the medium; comics critics rave over the kind of overly earnest slice-of-life stories that clutter up independent film festivals every year. I still write about music on a near-weekly basis, and I’m terrified of becoming that guy who hails as a groundbreaking innovation some sound or style that other musicians have been peddling for years, off my radar screen.
But again, that’s a critic’s fear. For casual music-lovers, I don’t see anything wrong with listening to the same set of favorites year after year. Granted, maybe those fans shouldn’t be so insistent that they’re only stuck in the past because the present sucks, but otherwise, I more or less understand their mindset.
I also think critics should be mindful of why and how most people listen to music. A critic’s job is to be analytical, engaging, and provocative, which is how it should be. But as someone who’s been doing this for a long time, I know that it’s sometimes easier to write about a record that’s unusual and challenging than it is to write about a set of catchy, well-crafted songs—which means that sometimes critics hype up albums that casual listeners find off-putting. And if that happens often enough, those listeners are bound to say, “Hey, I’ve tried to keep up with what’s supposed to be good these days, and it all sucks. What’s Tom Petty up to?” (I’m not saying that critics need to change their approach, mind you; I’m just explaining one big reason for the divide.)
You raise an interesting point, though, when you compare the lack of hunger for new music to the seemingly insatiable hunger for new movies, because when I look at the contemporary music I respond to most strongly, I find certain cinematic elements: vivid lyrics, for example, or a sweeping sound. More than anything, I’m drawn to good songwriting and passionate performances these days, far more than I am to attitude or production. I do this exercise when I think I like an album: What song would I pick from it if I wanted to convince one of my non-critic fans that it’s worthwhile? And I’m often shocked by how many albums I thought I liked end up failing that test. Take Grizzly Bear, for example. That’s a decent band, with a generally likeable sound, and when I’m in the right mood, I can listen to Veckatimest and think, “Gosh, that’s sweet.” Then a day later, a song of theirs will come up on shuffle between The Chi-Lites and Joni Mitchell, and it’ll sound like a big nothing.
I bring this up because I think both devoted followers of contemporary music and dogged nostalgists operate under a fallacy. Champions of the new want to argue that a dozen or so instant classics are released each year by musicians who are pushing their respective genres forward, while those who prefer to stay stuck in the past would argue that in essence, everything’s already been done. I’ve grappled with this dichotomy for a while now, and keep coming back to the idea that even if it’s just one guy with a guitar and the same four chords that every pop musician uses, the music he writes can still have value if it’s performed well, and imbued with something personal. Music itself may hardly ever change much—at least in essence—but the people who play it do. If they have a memorable story to tell, or a voice that makes me want to stop what I’m doing and pay attention, then what they’re doing deserves a spotlight. And I do still have that experience, several times a year.
It might happen more often if I went out to shows more, but alas, being an old man with kids and a busy schedule of TV-watching keeps me at home. I wonder, Steve, if maybe you feel as passionately about this subject as you do because you’re still out there in the scene, seeing bands pour their hearts out onstage to tiny audiences.
Steven: Maybe, though I’ve never been a big proponent of having to see bands live in order to “get” them. (Although sometimes it helps; I became an instant Grizzly Bear fanatic after seeing them in concert a few years ago. Speaking of which, I can think of several GB tracks that would pass your song test—“Cheerleader” would slay between Joni and Chi-Lites—but to each his own.)
To address another of your points, I don’t have a problem with people listening to the same favorites year in and year out, either. Do what makes you happy, everybody! (It’s not like I know any of you personally, so who cares?) But as Linda Holmes of NPR recently wrote, accept that you’re “surrendering” and missing out on something that’s pretty wonderful because you simply don’t have the time or energy to keep up. Too many people are guilty of “culling,” which is kidding yourself into thinking that you’re avoiding something based on informed choice. Noel, you might think that “good” music isn’t part of the cultural conversation—or that the music that is isn't worth your time—but I’d argue that Lady Gaga has released some excellent singles, and even Katy Perry has put out some intriguingly batshit music. (Seriously, give a quick listen to her recent “I’m totally fucking an alien” smash hit “E.T.”) These artists, and many others, are at least as interesting and relevant as the latest major-network TV show or Hollywood blockbuster.
Besides, there’s more to contemporary music than Gaga and Perry. Plenty of bands I know you like—Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket—have released Top 10 records and sell out large venues in major cities all over the world. Sure, scoring big on the sales charts doesn’t mean what it once did—that’s one of the central topics of my new column, We’re No. 1—but everything in pop culture has been diminished to a degree, just because the landscape is so crowded. As critics, no matter what medium we cover, we end up herding readers toward whatever obscure corner we’re interested in.
So yes, you’re right about the divide between music critics and music fans, but that divide exists in every other corner of pop culture. I doubt the average moviegoer loved Dogtooth like the average film critic (or even saw it), and critically adored TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men don’t command nearly the audience that American Idol does. (Hey, another example of music being relevant in the mainstream cultural conversation!) I’d argue that Veckatimest—which, at its core, is just a collection of breathtakingly pretty songs by a four-piece folk-rock band—is at least as user-friendly as Community, another favorite among TV writers that I often find really funny, if also a little smug. If anything in pop culture can be accused of being designed to suit the needs of critics looking for something fun and juicy to analyze, it’s Community, which rewards TV writers smart enough to laugh along as the show skewers pop-culture trivialities, sometimes—for my taste, anyway—with too much winking self-satisfaction. (Because Community remains a low-rated cult favorite, I’m probably not alone in feeling that way, even if I count myself as a somewhat ambivalent fan.)
Again, I’m not out to harangue anyone for their listening habits. But let’s be honest with ourselves: Part of what’s so appealing about The River or Double Nickels On The Dime for the fan who grew up with those records is the personal history you have tied up in that music. Returning to them is a way of reliving your past, over and over, in a powerfully vivid way. I love that aspect of music, but I want more. I also want discovery. I want new experiences. I treasure my musical past, but I don’t want to live there, at least not exclusively. In my view, that’s cutting yourself off from a whole world of great stuff. As a music critic, I’m going to try my best to convince you to pay that world an occasional visit. I might fail, but it’s your loss.