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Monday, September 19, 2005
Pretty good article in Stylus by Nick Southall about downloading-induced music burnout. It's a very good articulation of that by now apparently common phenomenon, even if I disagree with a lot of the ideas actually put forth, being fairly pro-dilettantism and all. (The paragraph beginning "There is a compulsion to consume..." is particularly tiresome, as you can probably deduce from those few words alone.) Still, what particularly interested me about it were the parts about, well, me--although in this case the striking thing was how little of myself I saw there.

What he's describing is distinctly different than the particular musical ennui I've been experiencing of late, an ennui which, as you might imagine, has me wearing berets made from old Backstreet Boys t-shirts and smoking pensively while I watch the My Chemical Romance video playing on a TV in a room across the courtyard from my bedroom window, only to close the curtain and turn away, turn away. The Southall Syndrome seems to be primarily characterized by an inability to be surprised by music (although really it should be pleasurably surprised, since there are still many surprises to be found in this world of ours) induced by overexposure/overstimulation, by getting so worked up that your aesthetics have a nervous breakdown and have to go sit in a salon chair in the mountains of Switzerland for several months just to be able to enjoy indie rock again. But in my case, I just realize I haven't really added many new CDs to my regular rotation in the last several months, and I have a hard time finding a CD to listen to in the morning that actually interests me, which has not really been the case for several years now.

At the same time, there are lots of MP3s I've downloaded that I like immensely and get the same sort of pleasure from that I used to get from blasting Evanesence while showering, and I really haven't been downloading anywhere near the volume of MP3s that I was two years ago. If there's a difference here, it's not that I downloaded too much in the past, but that I'm downloading too little now. I just don't have the time or energy to seek things out as much as I used to, so I'm mainly just looking at what's presented to me, which people have been nice enough to continue to do. I also haven't bought a CD except for the Knife album in the last four months, and technically that's something I've wanted to buy for at least a year and a half, so it doesn't really count for these purposes. The pleasure you derive from being a consumer of pop music is directly proportional to the amount of passion involve in that experience, and the more passion you're getting, the more you're giving, so for most people ("normal people," let's say) there's a point beyond which the feedback loop is self-sustaining, but if circumstances (availability, production, access) conspire to nudge you below that point, the amount of effort it would take to hurl you back into that cycle of knowledge and acquisition seems, at the time, to be more effort than it's worth. Whether or not it would be worth the effort in the long run is, of course, a question everyone has to answer for themselves, but it's hard to make that judgment when you're consumed by what Nick describes as "a vague sense of disgust mixed with guilt" and which I would describe as a sort of resignation. Of course, I'm still more ahead of the curve than 99% of the music listening population, but when you spend your time on ILM, that's hard to remember. Maybe that's a big part of the problem.

For me, the question has never been if I would run out of music to enjoy. As a matter of fact, to a certain degree I'm intentionally avoiding certain musical areas that I know I'll derive a great amount of enjoyment from in the future because I recognize that I won't enjoy them as much now. I know at one point I'll finally give into the temptation to dive headlong into the entirety of classical music, and it'll be wonderful; I have enough of a basis of knowledge and I already derive a basic level of pleasure from listening to it that when I can devote some attention to it, it'll probably be a great passion. But right now it's too quiet to listen to in the subway, so I'm sticking with pop.

At a certain point, I became very aware that I am young and so there is no shame in acting like a young person, even if I know that some of those actions might seem foolish when I'm older, because we all do foolish things when we're young, if we're worth a damn, and if we did not do these things, we would grow up to be much less interesting adults. I recognize that I will not be able to enjoy pop music as much when I get older, so I fling myself into it now with as much passion as I can muster, because it does provide a real source of pleasure. Seize the moment, etc. etc. And I construct elaborate justifications for this love while I am in the grips of this extreme passion on the off chance that some of it may turn out to be right, as well as to remind my older self just what it was about a synth line and a disco beat that provoked such devotion in my young and foolish mind.

But I recognize this makes me something of an oddity among my peers and that it's one of the many things that separates me from the general critical culture. I talk to certain editors who shall remain nameless and I vaguely consider trying to make this music criticism thing a more permanent enterprise, but then I think about me in 15 years listening to CD after CD of local indie band and I remember that I can't even do that now without being sorely tempted to take out a flamethrower and burn down every coffeehouse in town; that these noble editors do it every day is a testament to their dedication, good nature, and just basic ability to sustain a passion, an ability I don't think I really share. If anything, this reflects badly on me, but really it's just a difference, like the moment when I realized I didn't really derive much pleasure from solving the problems inherent in writing a working computer program, and so therefore I probably shouldn't pursue programming as a career.

In other words, I never got into this thinking I'd end up a music nerd, and as much as I've become one (albeit not a very good one), it makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. Like I said in the previous paragraph, there's nothing wrong with being a music nerd per se, especially if you like the bands I like[1]; indeed, I've always been pretty comfortable with the fact that I am and will always be a nerd of one sort or another. It's just that music nerd falls somewhere around the low-middle of the list of kinds of nerds I'd like to be, higher than sci-fi nerd but lower than, say, classics nerd. This list is mainly arbitrary, but if I had to explain what criteria I use[2], it would probably be something like: the more serious the nerds take their subject, the less I like them. And there's a difference between being passionate and taking it seriously; the difference is whether you think there's a corrolation between value judgments about the subject at hand and actual truth. This, too, is a feedback loop; the more members of the community feel like there's an objectively true position you can take as to the awesomeness of Firefly, the more other members of the community have to assert an objective truth-value to the opposite position in order to even begin a discussion with those members, and the whole thing tends to snowball if it's not nipped in the bud.

The reason for this criteria's prominence for me is, I think, the other big way in which I differ both from Nick's diagnosis and from the aforementioned general critical consensus[3]: I don't have any particular need to participate in these discussions, but am perfectly happy to watch them from the outside. Partially this is because once I do start to participate, the debates stubbornly refuse to conform to my preferences, but mainly that's just the way I came to pop: self-taught, and mainly alone. I didn't have an older sibling or cool friend or job at a college radio station: I just watched TV, listened to the radio, and read magazines, and picked up what I could, as much from the library as from the record store. It's nice to have people today who will write me and say, "Hey, I think you'd like this!" and be right, I can't lie: what I like about that is the new music to enjoy, not having someone write me about it.

While Nick talks about wanting to listen to something just to be able to say he's listened to it, or of feeling like he has to be able to justify his dislikes through careful factual argument, I understand those impulses but don't really recognize them in myself. If there would be a reason for me to overindulge in music, it would be to find new things to enjoy; I'm always more eager to like a new piece of music than dislike it, even if this doesn't actually result in me liking more things than I dislike. What I do recognize in Nick's motivations for massive downloading is the influence of peer pressure, of the standards of the musicnerd community and the desire to participate in it.[4] As I say above, this is not something I'm particularly interested in. Maybe this was a mistake on my part; maybe, given my tendencies, making a greater effort to conform to the standards of the community would have better sustained my interest in the music.[5] But I don't really think so. Again, although I have a sort of irresistable urge to put in my two cents even when I know I'll regret it later, I don't need to participate in the discourse to get something out of it. I may even be better off when I don't. Because I regard criticism as an art as fixed as any other, just as I don't need to talk back to an artist to enjoy a painting, neither do I need to feel like a participant in the grand game of music nerdism to get something out of it.

And, honestly, my relationship with the music itself is much the same, which is to say, solitary. I don't really much like the social aspects of the artistic community, and it often seems like my biggest problems with various communities are just those aspects, even if it's not obvious. The music is like a book: something you ultimately experience alone, and which should thus be judged and discussed primarily in that context. This is not to say that social factors don't end up having an impact on your solitary experience of listening, but at the moment you are actually doing the hearing, they're fixed, set at whatever moment in time you hit play, although they may shift before the next time you hit play. I think it's extremely important to keep this in mind when you're talking about music in particular, as well as the fact that while everyone's context for hearing the music is different (and thus can't really be generalized), everyone's experience of the music itself is more or less the same, and thus should be the focus.

Also like a book, I feel that one listening can and often is enough to "properly" experience music, and that's why the dilettante model is so properly applied to music. As an artistic product, music demands less of your time than anything besides visual art, and so that initial impact has to be important, but in particular the initial impact when you are experiencing it in solitary, alone. Even when I got music in a social context, it only ended up imprinting itself upon my brain in a solitary context. We forget that, because we are nerds, and we want more things to connect us, more things to debate and have opinions on and to let us show off our brains. But music is something that happens in time and in isolation, with every beat serving as a summation of every moment that's led up to this one, the one that's flowing into each ear right through to your brain and then back out with your breath. When I think about music, I think about what might happen if you could lie on your bed with your headphones on and hold it all in, hold it tight, let all those moments build up and fill your lungs until you have entire albums in there, whole discographies, until your body is a perfect library of sound. And the fact is that you can't do this. No one can hold their breath that long, so what matters is what's happening moment to moment. But the mistake people make is that the crucial moment isn't the passage through the ear canal. It's the exhale, the point where those sounds pass over your tongue. And at that moment, do you smile?

Or don't you?

[1] OK, I'm sacrificing clarity for yuks here; what I really mean is that it's OK if you use your bredth of knowledge in the service of careful thought and good writing. Which I guess applies to everything, but especially nerdism.
[2] Aside from, arguably, "amount of exposure I've had to the particular subculture involved," of course.
[3] Which I picture as being not unlike Victoria's dad from Corpse Bridge, except much, much bigger, and maybe sitting on a hill.
[4] I mean, this is an article on Stylus we're talking about, after all.
[5] Although, honestly, I think a big part of it is that there's no particular sound or genre or scene I can reliably turn to for good music, so I have to look maybe more widely than other fans do.