What I Hear But Can't Know


At the risk of personalizing too greatly the content of these entries - I think I need to accentuate a crucial difference between its two writers. The one could’ve probably helped out, say, John Peel in a stalled quest for that impossibly rare bootleg from, you know the one, ‘66 - a Bay Area show headlined by… and on and on. The other - me - owns maybe thirty CDs he hasn’t touched, heard, seen in more than 3 years, and one vinyl EP purchased (online - of course) on a whim because everyone should and hardly anyone does support this (t)wee chap.

 

Certain, this fact is either a symptom or a consequence of age - as is our respective breadths of music listening and understanding. These are obvious things, and there’s hardly an audience - even our friends and fellow musiophiles - for indulgent self-examinations on media consumption. But! I’ve never read compelling insights on the way the permutations of physical music ownership - or a distinct and (largely) unapologetic lack thereof in my case - impacts our relationship with music, or my singular relationship at the least. So, consider none of what follows comprehensive - but instead the anecdotes of a guy who listened to Blonde on Blonde over fifty times before he ever saw this picture.

 

Confession: I’ve never read a liner note. Seriously, not one. I get what they are and why, conceptually, they exist - but no relationship I can imagine developing with an album or a single (good or bad) has a thing to do with liner notes. In fact, the whole idea is foreign to me. I was a child consumer of movies before I was coherent and discriminating listener, reader, eater, etc. As I know it, credits appear after the entertainment’s over - and are meant to score your departure as you ignore a scrolling list of names. So when exactly am I supposed to read this stuff? Before, after? God forbid during the music.

 

I know I’m not alone. I’m a millennial: liner notes are a phenomenon cached along with rotary phones, floppy discs, and Ronald Reagan - things from the decadent Before Time that served a certain important but now laughably simple function. And - editorializing here - the disastrously condescending politics of Silicon Valley (“we’re here to save the world - the anarcho-libertarian purveyors of the New”) moving east like a big storm makes this a problem worth acknowledging: we feign knowing better - that, for instance, physical packaging isn’t carbon-neutral and is therefore fit only for retro collections. Maybe true - but I didn’t understand what the hell production techniques were until I was twenty. Again, I’m not alone. Youngish critics at Pitchfork and AV Club? Overwhelming proclivity to ignore the pros behind the board to instead wax cultural about an album’s claim to some hip or unhip signifier. The closest either gets to crediting the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League for the most ambitiously through-produced product of the year, Acid Rap? Evan Rytlewski, with “dopamine-pumped production.”

 

Stayed editorial boards with longer views of history at, say, Rolling Stone and, to a lesser extent, SPIN keep this kind of vapid, contextless theorizing off the page - for now. But I’m not convinced the profession won’t be treating all musicians like undeserving auteurs in ten years.

 

On a more personal level, there’s a certain kind of intimacy with music I’m not privileged to. I know I’ve listened to Sgt Pepper’s more times than my mom has, but she’s got those goofy-ass mustache cutouts and Polaroids of them in action. That, and the $5 she spent for her used copy at the amazing Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill give her access and memory I can’t even understand.

 

I want to lie and say I compensate for some of these structural deficiencies because my relationship with albums is way more egalitarian than yours - that streaming Spotify liberates me and artists from certain material realities like, uh, being broke or mired in a repressive dialectical simulacrum orchestrated by miscreants and intellectual prostitutes. Nope. That’s not exactly true. Unburdened by any kind of investment I can cycle through all or half of the five albums streaming enables Pitchfork to review a day without the need to evaluate or budget my consumption. Did I make a terrible choice in listening to Civil Wars? Yes, of course I did. What did I lose? Nothing - I was playing Candy Crush the whole time. Moving on now to Super Taranta! for the fourth time this weekend.

 

What I’m saying is: I retain all the lapse tendencies of older listeners set in their ways, but don’t have the same kind of opportunity cost incentives to give new stuff the shots it might deserve. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road? Made it three tracks in a dozen times over four years. Finally forced myself one day to burn it to a CD that cost less than $0.04 and play it exclusively on a mountain roadtrip promising no hope of LTE connectivity. Guess what. I love the fucking thing.

 

The (still negative) flip side of this is the meaninglessness of mix tapes. At 13 - I pieced together the best songs of those thirty-odd CDs I told you about and sequenced them into an eating mix. I’m not lying. I was a fat little kid. The track list is now lost to time - so I’ll try to reproduce for the highlights and their functions:

 

"This I Promise You" - N’Sync … Something light and airy to accompany the appetizer, and sufficiently sad in case it or the subsequent entre sucked.

 

"Ride Wit Me" - Nelly … You had to eat the entre with this because it was the best song anyone ever wrote.

 

"Who Let The Dogs Out" - Baha Men … Alternative to the above in case we were having sausages.

 

"Just The Two of Us" - Will Smith … I had a love affair with dessert.

 

"Tubthumping" - Chumbawamba … That line about ‘pissing the night away’ was a great way to flush down the pop I drank too much of.

 

"Insane in the Brain" - Cypress Hill … Primarily because I was so full after dinner I felt dizzy.

 

This was my biggest triumph until I lost my virginity. Now? I’ve got twenty-seven mixes on Spotify, each with at least forty tracks - one for everything: working out, cleaning, shopping, driving, pooping. I would sequence them if the random function weren’t so convenient.

 

Imagine crafting one of these for your girlfriend. If her car’s got bluetooth capabilities, you shouldn’t even burn the damn thing. Just share the link in a text. But beware: all you’re giving her is a Pandora radio station - with several hundred thousand fewer songs.

 

I set out for a certain balance in this piece - in my outline I founded and annotated several benefits to my individual way of living and breathing inside music. But none of it fit into the tone or the sweep of this argument. Yeah - we’re losing some special things. Maybe later I’ll tell you what I think we’re gaining, but in the meantime: you older guys are cool… and fortunate. I’ll try coming around.