I’m a lucky guy.
At this year’s South by Southwest, I had the chance to see The Jesus and Mary Chain’s midnight gig at The Belmont. It was the perfect storm of intimate venue, sizable crowd, great weather, and the band being as witty and on the ball as possible. I can say without even a hint of dishonesty that I enjoyed the concert, but like so many other times, I didn’t enjoy it the way I should have or with as much intensity. The whole time, I found myself obsessing over minute details: the distance of my feet from another attendee’s, if I’d remember the setlist, when the last time I ate was, why the guy in the vest has his arms folded, how long until bootleg footage ends up on YouTube, and a million other useless thoughts that only serve to detract.
Why was I unmoved by a band I fought tooth and nail against a throng of strangers to find the tiniest of spaces in order to enjoy? The feeling was that nothing about the event seemed to have true meaning or felt right emotionally. I explained away the significance by allowing myself to get caught up in the outside world. We can make excuses like the sound is off or, more popularly, that the remaining crowd’s interest can implant or remove us in the situation. The truth of the matter is, the concert-going experience is one that is personal, whether the crowd is moshing or has their hands folded in disinterest. As much as we’re joining a crowd, we have to give ourselves a reason to want to join, to be involved and get swept up in something larger than ourselves. When you do, music moves and sways the spirit; and when you don’t, you worry about the smudge of dirt on your SXSW badge.
Photo not recent.
It’s understandable why the fickle muse of passion would abandon a concertgoer. But such an absence can even be found in the most sacred of music consumption acts: solo record listening. One quiet Sunday not too long ago, I sat down to spin Bruce Springsteen’s latest LP, Wrecking Ball. My dedication to his canon, until this point, had been average and neither one of worship nor sacrilegious contempt. Still, that album did nothing for me as a whole; sounds emanated from my speakers, and nothing occurred within me save a feeling of impatience. I felt neither bored nor inspired, not engaged or agitated; instead, all I felt was an absence. It’s the kind of experience that escalates, where you become so desperate to fill that void that even more emptiness feels like some kind of meaningful connection. If there is one dominant sense memory I have attached to the whole session, it’s trying to time my foot tapping to the striking of hi-hats. Clearly, this was a well-spent early afternoon with New Jersey’s favorite son.
With the concert phenomenon, you can make the excuse that crowds diminish any music connectivity (whether that’s a valid point is totally moot). But alone on your couch or in your tiny, darkened office, you simply don’t have that crutch. The only thing impacting the experience is a deadlier version of you, one free of social concerns like appearance and perception, free to ruin and destroy in great waves like those of the mustard that overtook your Misfits t-shirt. The core issue at hand is that I heard everything and was in a totally attuned state for maximum consumability, but there wasn’t what I like to call The Buzz. If you’re loving a record, it’s that surge of energy that fills up the hollow spaces of your bones and makes your face twisted into a perpetual grin. On the other hand, if you hate a record, it makes your brain rattle and your blood fill with poison. Either feeling, for better or worse, is worth having, as long as it’s one of these and not the numb of emptiness. Even then, that last option is a lot more alluring than faking emotion. Be it a simple head nod or a sneer of disgust, I’ve degraded myself and the album just to have some kind of emotional reaction other than a glassy-eyed stare. Being a poser, it turns out, is simply a cherry on the buzzkill sundae.
“Self Portrait” —I often take terrible cell phone pics while listening to boring albums.
No matter what, I cannot keep from delving deeper into the problem, driving myself bonkers with statements and logical deconstructions to understand the root problem. Is it a specific band or genre? Is it how I consume certain kinds of music, be it the choice of chair or headphones or what I wear and where I stand in a venue? Is it coming into things with a good mood? Maybe I should realize we all have good and bad days and let things simply stand as they are? But then I wonder why I can’t be greedy and feel something genuine and long-lasting each time. In essence, what the frikk is wrong with me, and why can’t music – defining aspect of my life, bringer of happiness, giver of money – impact my very being like I so obsessively think happens with every other person every single time they hear music?
After a while, I remember that music is, after all, my job. Between albums for work and those for my own enjoyment, I must absorb and analyze 25+ albums per week, not to mention an endless slew of random tracks; feeling nothing is a regular part of the job, like car wrecks for NASCAR drivers. Though each episode hurts, I can take comfort that it’s all part of the job and is for a reason. Others in my generation, however, don’t have that luxury. Before CoS, I held down a boring and useless office job, keeping music as my only true office mate (sorry, John). When I found a great nibble of new music, I was overjoyed, celebrating as if it may have been the start of a new chapter in my life (even if it was just some emotional high to ride into lunch on). But when I encountered that dreaded Bermuda Triangle of music (where happiness and hatred go to rot slowly), I found the phenomenon to be disappointing in a different sort of way. I wasn’t questioning my own value as a writer or cultural analyzer; I was questioning where and how I’d get that oh-so precious time back.
The majority of people listening to music (i.e. non-critics) don’t listen to nearly as much music as someone in the industry (if you can meet/exceed my level, I want your job when you get fired for slacking). As such, corporate types have to encounter less meaningless material because of those limitations, as each new album or song has that much more riding on it emotionally. They have less time to deal with unimportant albums because of board meetings and the like, and every missed opportunity for something transcendent just adds more pain to the already agonizing existence as an office drone. But it’s really not about who feels what more or less, because you can arrive at a buffet of conclusions regarding the basic value of either musical consumption lifestyle (for example, while I may take these “losses” more heavily, I submit non-insiders celebrate great albums more enthusiastically thanks to their inherent position as mere fans). What matters is that everyone, from those who shuffle their iPods on the walk to lunch every day to the senior staff writer for Rolling Stone, deals with this same battle. Though our behaviors and reactions are different, all music consumption is a chase for something grand, an emotional high, or something of substance that’s bigger than ourselves. The chase is all we ever really have, and we should be rightly elated.
Listening to music and hunting: more similar than anyone might have thought.
Beyond giving you a chance to really be gracious when you ARE moved by an album, not being impacted by the works of a record from time to time teaches the valuable lesson of independence. We turn to music as a means to understand the world and process our own emotions. Essentially, we use them to take a sentiment (feeling sad or happy) and allow it to facilitate the development of an entire emotional state (perhaps you hate your job, crank some Operation Ivy, and the next thing you know you’re destroying your breakfast nook with karate kicks).
People who really care about music as an integral part of their lives (people who read or write music columns) do this regularly, making it the one definitive way with which they create and express emotions. Without that to lean against, establishing emotions and expressing them (one fluid gesture) becomes difficult. But that difficulty has meaning, something to offer beyond ordinary emotionality. When we feel music’s abundant omission from our existence, as happens with a meaningless album, we question ourselves and our emotional experiences. We find ways to understand our own feelings in a way we haven’t before, a way which places their existence firmly in our hands. This kind of responsibility breeds better human beings, who are not only overjoyed at a way to summarize and encapsulate feelings with these pre-crafted relics, but who can find meaning without them. With that ability in hand, we as consumers can then better use music as an aid, not as a means to an end, in discovering all sorts of nifty facts and figures about who we are under the surface.
Even with all that knowledge and a newfound sense of self-awareness, it doesn’t make the whole process easier. Then again, that’s kind of the point: suffering and art go hand in hand. They’re great when you’re the creator and even better when you’re the consumer. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that, but what it boils down to is working for art and all the valuable gems it has to offer, even while it’s running away from you. Because before you know it, the next album you click play or drop the needle on could be your favorite album ever.
Chris Coplan is News Editor at Consequence Of Sound.