Tuesday, March 13, 2012

my changing relationship to music ii

When I bought my first car (it was really the second one I drove, but since the first one was really my dad's, and I wrecked it after a month, it doesn't really count), it came with its original radio. This was a problem, because the car was a 1973 Plymouth Valiant, and the original radio was a tube-powered AM radio. It had to warm up before I could enjoy the glorious selection of the Jacksonville AM radio market. As I was a big music fan, I found this arrangement to be less than satisfactory.

So I saved up some of my Little Caesars money, made the trip to Circuit City, and bought a Mitsubishi cassette player and Coustic (I think) speakers...which, as my automobile was a piece of crap, effectively gave me a more expensive car radio than car. The radio sounded pretty good, but more importantly, it was loud. When I would have to go to work meetings, I'd pick up a co-worker (who later stole my job), throw in ...And Justice For All, and turn up the volume until the windows started to shake...which worked better than coffee.

It was a good stereo. The problem with it, though (apart from being in a crappy car), was that it was a cassette player...not that there were many alternatives. Having a cassette player made it a necessity to learn basic cassette reconstruction techniques. If the tape flipped out of the shell and got caught on the player heads, I had to be able to fish out the ribbon while inflicting minimum damage. I became adept at re-spooling tapes when the case would crack. Every so often, a cassette would start emitting a high-pitched whine when playing. I quickly learned this could be fixed by throwing the cassette as hard as I could on the floor.

The tapes themselves required a certain care to minimize the playing malfunctions. Leave a tape in a car in Florida in the summer, and it would instantly stretch and warp to the point of sounding unlistenable (I would've used the "experimental label, but I didn't know it back then). In the best case, cassettes had a limited lifespan and would simply wear out. I could directly quantify how much I liked an album by how many copies I went through; Appetite for Destruction, Operation: Mindcrime, ...And Justice for All, and For Those About to Rock all warranted at least three re-purchases.

I was far from alone in having to buy these cassettes over and over. For one thing, cassettes sucked for everyone, not just me. But more importantly, many of the people I knew similarly blew through multiple copies of each of these specific albums. Is there anyone in existence who only owned one copy of Appetite? Nah, not only did everyone buy the Guns n' Roses debut, they inevitably had to replace it more than once. Similarly, every metalhead I knew had Operation: Mindcrime multiple times, and ...And Justice for All similarly seemed to be in every single person's car more than once...a working copy in the tape deck and a crushed copy on the floorboards.

While I'm sure each of these albums can thank the crappy nature of cassettes for a certain portion of their high sales figures, there is another factor at work: each of these albums was especially popular. Sure, Mindcrime had a limited base of appeal, but pretty much anyone who might like it did in fact own it. Metallica crossed over to mainstream with ...And Justice (before, it should be noted, they went commercial), and it was impossible to throw a rock in a local mall without hitting at least one burgeoning teenage GnR fan...visible by the patch on the back of their jean jacket. Hell, Appetite for Destruction reached a certain level of omnipresence among people I know. I hesitate to think of it as a touchstone of my generation, but it probably is more accurate of a characterization of that album than I would like to admit.

It's not really a mystery why it worked this way. Of course we all listened to pretty much the same stuff. How would we ever find out about different stuff? MTV was still playing videos, but it wasn't like they had great access for anyone other than the few bands major labels pushed. We could listen to the radio, but the local stations pretty much only played arena rock from the seventies. We could look at the music magazines, but they stuck on the same several bands which actually managed to hit MTV airplay. If we talked to our friends, they might recommend something they heard of...either on MTV, radio, or in a crappy music mag.

I've been thinking about this for some time. Back in November, I was looking up some band on Amazon, and I just kept following the "people who bought this also bought..." link until I found something I liked...so I was able to discover, purchase, and download an album (the debut from Yuck) from a band I would've never heard of if not for the internet. And if you like one indy band, it's increasingly easy--via mailing lists, bandcamp, and the like--to discover twenty or thirty similar bands; for me, Son Volt led to Uncle Tupelo, which led to Wilco, which led to Drive-By Truckers, which led to Slobberbone, which led to Two Cow Garage, which led to Glossary, which led to Lucero, and so on. It's truly a wonder.

Every so often, I'll read someone complaining about how our ever-increasing media access has led us, as a culture, to increasingly divergent tastes. The critic will continue on, lamenting the days where people used to share more cultural experiences; nowadays, the writer will continue (with a tear on their choice of font), we're growing increasingly apart from too many entertainment choices. Will we ever be able to be a single people, they end, without a shared monoculture?

Admittedly, I'm not usually one for nostalgia, but the nostalgia for a monoculture makes even less sense than normal. After all, if I would've had choices, if I would've known of my options, would I have really invested so much of my youth into Motley Crue? Probably not...and I would've been a better person for it.


Jason Zeh said...

I think this issue is interesting given the end point of our conversation last night. We were talking about the intimate, face-to-face relationships that are facilitated by live music and generally participating in a local music scene. I sometimes feel like my music tastes isolate me from the sense of community that I think music should have.

Ideally, music, and other cultural products should serve a social function. Cultural products should be able to engage in dialog with members of a community and should be able to convey the ideas that are important to that community. Live music should have a festive and celebratory feeling that resonates with listeners and other participants. I often feel that my music doesn't serve the social function that I wish it did. There are few people around me who care about what I do. And so, the potential for the music to bring people together in this way is limited by its limited appeal.

However, with the networking possibilities afforded by the internet, my music does serve a social function. There is a vibrant community of which I am a part. It is just that, with a few exceptions, that community exists in a virtual space. Virtual community is only satisfying to an extent. It allows me to interact with people who I wouldn't have the chance to meet in daily life. It allows me to communicate and play with aesthetic ideas that would likely be unavailable to me in the place where I live. It makes the moments when I am able to engage in revelatory experience with others much more rare and special.

A lot of times, I wish that I was better able to situate my work within a more satisfying, geographically concentrated, real world community.

So, I guess what we are saying here is that there is a trade off. The internet provides benefits like more options. At the same time, it has the potential to isolate us from our neighbors.

Anonymous said...

Well-said. When I was young, popular music gave us something to share some emotional space around and maybe lower our inhibitions a bit even before so many of us got heavily into self-medicating, but you've got me in wistful romantic mode here, and I'm wondering what it would have been like if we had made more music and listened to less 1970s top-forty (at least we had the decency to overlook the eighties) or if we had the opportunity to see our own roots music mature and change. Last summer I saw this local duet( http://www.kaivama.com/) play one of the last Iron Range ethnic-based fraternal halls last summer. Billy Pilgrim once again came unstuck in time. It was gorgeous. Young goth-styled couples and modest, beautiful, aged people grooved to Hammond B3 and violin music and that breezy old second-floor auditorium felt like a pine-floored wooden ship. It was better than a mix-tape. Better than Friday Night Videos. Better than my MP3 player maybe.

I had a "Guns and Jennings" tape in my truck--Appetite on one side, a mix of my favorite Waylon songs on the other. Steve Miller, Metallica, the Eagles, Chili Peppers. I think we could have had something better.

I think we could still have cohesion between people from different regions. People from all over creation wrap vegetables and protein in starch and steam, fry, or bake them and they can still appreciate their own take on this and connect with others over dumplings. And if they can't, some anthropologists say culture is based not on the ideas that we hold in common but on what we agree to fight over.

You and I got to know each other over Zappa and Lyle Lovett. Sure, they came from roughly the same national distribution monster, but, at the sake of being even more simplistic, it was fun. It was interesting. This idea that we need to have agreement to have a cohesive culture or society or nation basically just pisses me off, to be honest. It's the most common symptom of the dysfunctional family: rule number one is that we're all happy and we all agree that we are all on the same page. I feel like a grad student, harping away on this, but that's just such a limited perspective. I may actually go throw my tapes away. I wish I was joking. My Vic has fairly decent factory speakers and its original tape deck in it. Thank God that Minneapolis/St Paul has at least a couple of community radio stations (KFAI http://www.kfai.org/ being the most ecumenical station I've ever seen in my life) and strong public and college stations and the AMPERS http://www.ampers.org/ group.

By the way, if you know a band that needs a fat, bearded mandolin player, I've just picked it up and I'm starting to get a feel for it.