You can have it all. But should you?: Confessions of a recovering, and occasionally relapsed, completist
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Somewhere in the cluttered storage locker where my wife and I keep all the items we can’t bear to part with—though we’ll probably never need them again—are the last vestiges of my past as an obsessive completist. Specifically, there’s an audiotape of R.E.M.’s 1991 appearance on MTV Unplugged, which has never been released as a commercial recording. My version comes taped directly from the television and I remember it sounding pretty good. The band is in fine form, seeming to enjoy itself as it delivers an intimate set that touches both on hits and deep cuts. The tape also contains a pair of performances from R.E.M.’s appearance on Saturday Night Live and, on the other side, still more TV appearances from around the same time. I don’t remember what else is on there, but I know it shares a case with R.E.M. bootlegs of unreleased tracks, alternate takes, and live sets. I also have bootlegs from a few other favorite artists from that period of my fandom (and now for that matter), like Elvis Costello, Prince, and David Bowie. But when I discovered the world of B-sides and rare tracks, I focused mostly on R.E.M., trading and buying tapes at record shows and via the mail. Because, back then, when I liked something, I wanted to have it all.
It’s a tendency I haven’t so much shaken as scooted further away from with each year past my 18th birthday. Now I largely don’t think of tracking down every last piece of ephemera of the things I love, even if the old impulse still stirs once in a while. I was reminded of my old ways last week by the essay “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything” by Linda Holmes, the fine writer behind NPR’s Monkeysee blog. In the piece, Holmes does some math that will hit those of us who consider experiencing the best culture, pop and otherwise, has to offer an important part of life. (Basically, everyone who reads this site, I would hope.) You’re going to miss a lot. The numbers simply aren’t in your favor, whether you’re interested books, music, movies, art, theater or, most likely, some combination of the above and more.
There are, by Holmes’ reckoning, two logical responses to this: culling and surrender. The former involves packing up pieces of the cultural experience—large or small—in a box labeled “Not For Me.” The latter means just accepting that, yeah, you’re going to miss some good stuff. A lot of good stuff. But that’s okay. It’s a big world with abundant deposits of good stuff, and while it’s sad that you’re not going to get to it all—be it Charlotte Brontë, Jackson Pollock, or The Moonglows—isn’t it kind of wonderful that we live in a world with too much to experience in one lifetime?
Holmes expresses, better than I could, the same realization reached by the Wilco song “The Late Greats”:
The greatest lost track of all time
The Late Greats’ “Turpentine”
You can’t hear it on the radio
You can’t hear it anywhere you go
I’ve heard “The Late Greats” described as a send-up of the music-obsessive mindset, but I think it’s onto something more profound: Loving music or any kind of art isn’t about finding the perfect song. It’s about searching for it and realizing, maybe only with time, that it can’t be found, that, per Wilco again, “the best song will never get sung.” And that’s okay.
You can get lost chasing after “Turpentine.” In my experience, the completist impulse is somewhere in the middle of culling and surrender. It means trying to carve some order in the middle of the chaos, declaring, “I’ll never experience the best of everything but I can experience all of this thing.” For a while, that meant tracking down as much R.E.M. as possible via the back channels of the day until the distractions of college, financial constraints, new musical interests, and diminishing returns dimmed my enthusiasm. Couldn’t, say, the $15 I spent on a bootleg tape featuring the band sloppily working its way through a cover of “In The Year 2525” at some Massachusetts club in the mid-’80s have been put to better use? If there was a greatest lost track of all time, that certainly wasn’t it.
I’m glad I quit when I did. It’s even easier now, in the digital era, to indulge obsessions past any reasonable point. Sites exists for Bruce Springsteen completists, Looney Tunes fanatics, and Star Wars geeks searching for that live performance, lost cartoon, or rare action figure that they have to have. The 18-year-old me would have gone nuts with that information at his fingertips. The 38-year-old me still does sometimes. Making my way through DVD box-sets of complete TV series, for instance, gives me a sense of achievement. I create “best of” playlists featuring every single release by a certain artist to listen to, of course, but also because creating it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I’ve made a little sense out of the unruly cultural world. It’s a harmless enough urge, maybe even a healthy one, until it becomes a fixation indulged at the expense of other experiences.
Completism is fine so long as it doesn’t become an end to itself. I treasure my Complete Stax/Volt Singles box set, but it’s the tracks on my “Best Of Stax” playlist that I listen to the most. I like the odd, poorly recorded Modern Lovers live set I downloaded last month, but it’s still the group’s single album in its original incarnation that blows me away. Get stuck in one world too long and the rest of the world starts to feel too far away. I once had a roommate who limited his listening to anything vaguely related to the Beatles and nothing else, which meant he knew intimately the work of Mary Hopkin, a singer-songwriter who had a couple of hits for the group’s Apple label, and, as far as I know, had never heard a note of Joni Mitchell. I can’t help but feeling he made the wrong choice. Is the time spent looking for that last, half-formed instrumental Smiths demo really worth it when there’s so much out there, readily available, fully formed and waiting to be heard?
Here’s the other thing: What’s on the other side of completism? Isn’t it a little sad to discover there’s nothing left to find? This may do nothing for my film-critic cred, but I’m glad there are, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock films out there I’ve never watched. I’ve seen most of them and there’s an excellent chance I’ll get around to catching the rest one of these days, but it makes me happy to know they’re out there waiting for me. Patton Oswalt has argued in Wired that the instant availability of everything that ever was and ever will lead to some sort of pop-culture apocalypse. Maybe it’s on us to forestall that as long as possible. There have been some pockets of resistance. Overwhelmed by being a music critic and fan in this time of information overload, A.V. Club contributor Michaelangelo Matos launched what he called the “Slow Listening Movement” in 2008, vowing to listen to one CD, and one track, at a time for the coming 11 months. Perhaps, just as we order our diets in attempts to stay healthy, we should figure out how much culture we can consume and still appreciate it. After a while, it can seem less like art and more like information in need of sorting. For me, that’s meant giving up on hearing/watching/reading all of anything in the interest of hearing/watching/reading some of everything, even when part of me feels the completist pull.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should have stayed the course, tracking down bootleg after bootleg until I had heard every note my favorite band as a teenager ever committed to tape. Maybe, if I knew the catalog inside and out—canonical and non-canonical—I would have latched onto some greater truth, discovered what drew me to the music in the first place, and really understood the music at last. Maybe that sort of obsession turns transcendent when pushed far enough that sense emerges on the other side of madness. Maybe if you search long enough you’ll find your “Turpentine.” Maybe. But I’ve decided to let others do the looking.