Front Page Reviews & AIR
Mixtapes, CDs, Radio and Other 20th Century Relics
In recent months, two unrelated decisions made me think long and hard about the way I used to relate to my favorite music. One of the decisions I made myself (well, with my wife), the other was made by a corporate entity. Both were probably inevitable – and therefore not that surprising – but it was the kind of convergence of events that makes people like me think, “I should write something about this!” So here we are. My wife and I recently brought most of our CDs to Newbury Comics and sold them for cash. Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Chicago, Q101 – the “alternative” radio station of my high school years – went off the air. All this brought me, as a music consumer, to one of those mid-thirties what-does-it-all-mean kinda things…
“My Love Life”
The first time I bought a compact disc with my own money, it was 1991. The album was U2’s Achtung Baby. I pre-ordered it so I was sure to have a copy waiting for me on release day, even if all the rest were sold out. I was thirteen. We were living in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley at the time, and the local chain where I got the album was called “The Wherehouse.” I think it was the one on Ventura. I remember that when I walked in, they were playing the album. The song was “One”. Having only heard “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways” ahead of time, hearing “One” for the first time as I bought the album was…well…just thinking about it now chokes me up a little. Let’s just say I knew I had made a good investment. With that album, I felt my musical taste coming of age. I had been obsessed with U2 for the previous three years, as only a 10-12 year-old can be obsessed with a rock band. I worshipped them, idolized them and wanted to be them (no, that’s not entirely redundant). But there was an innocence about it. I had no context to put U2 in, really (in fact, I barely listened to anything else). I wasn’t really aware how cool or uncool they were. I knew nothing about the critical backlash to Rattle and Hum (the movie had, in fact, become my career guide, much in the way David Crosby talks about seeing A Hard Day’s Night: I knew what I wanted to do with my life). It wouldn’t have mattered if I did – my love was blind. I had bought the entire U2 back catalogue on cassette and I listened to all of it faithfully on my Walkman (yes, all of October and all the way through “Elvis Presley and America”).
But by the time Achtung Baby came out, I was becoming more aware. My brother had introduced me to KROQ, L.A.’s “alternative” radio station. I understood the idea of an alternative kind of cool, and this resonated with me, since not a lot of kids my age had the same passion for music that I did. But KROQ seemed to get it. They also cemented what I already knew, that Achtung Baby was indeed very cool. I sat by the radio to tape the premiere of “Mysterious Ways”, which seemed to be what everyone at KROQ was waiting for, too. I had found kindred spirits out there, and I began to listen faithfully, knowing that my next favorite song or favorite band would be fully endorsed by these new ambassadors of cool.
Over the next year or so, I soaked in everything KROQ had to offer. There was The Cure’s Wish, the Manchester scene (at the time, I didn’t know the difference between The Stone Roses and EMF, I just liked it all), Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Pixies, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and of course, Morrissey. My brother and I would tape our favorite songs when we could catch them, doing our homework as the radio played. I have a vivid memory of a taped version of Morrissey’s “My Love Life”, because it was a single that wasn’t on an album, and no stores seemed to carry it. So when it was time for a mixtape, it was the KROQ taped version that made it on. As I listened, I began to put together bits and pieces of the alternative music narrative. I understood that The Cure had started out around the same time as U2, that their earlier stuff was much darker and stranger (I had seen the “Lovesong” video), and that “Friday I’m in Love” (which I loved) was uncharacteristic of them. But man, I loved Wish. I played that tape into the ground (I still remember that it smelled really strongly of cologne from the day we bought it and we never knew why). In the spring of 1992 I made a mix for my class trip to Washington, D.C. On the trip, I developed one of my first big crushes on this older girl who had no idea. I would sit on the bus with my Walkman on as we drove between tourist attractions, listening to “A Letter to Elise” over and over and just feeling like that song said. it. all.
My freshman year of high school (’92-’93) found me in a new school, with no friends, and something like 3,000 kids I didn’t know. Alternative rock became my best friend. I did my best adolescent brood to Pearl Jam’s “Black” (man, that song was heavy) with my flannel shirts and my fake Doc Martens. While I took in what seemed like a lot of music via KROQ, I filtered it down to my favorites that actually got the heavy rotation treatment at home or on my Walkman. I could probably name them all: Pearl Jam’s Ten, REM’s Automatic For The People, Michael Penn’s March, Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining, Morrissey’s Your Arsenal, The Stone Roses album, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Fear, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s God Fodder, Billy Bragg’s Don’t Try This At Home, 10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden, in addition to the ever-present Wish and Achtung. All of these albums (and whatever ones I forgot to include) have stuck with me to some extent, having seeped into my consciousness over too many repeated listens. Some of them I haven’t listened to for years, but they still are instantly recalled with just a couple notes. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I could sing you all the words to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Nightingale Song”.
The fall of 1993 brought more changes, with a move from L.A. to coastal southwest Michigan, a heavy homework load, and even less of a social life. It also brought a new radio station; Chicago’s Q101 (“The New Rock Alternative”) came in loud and clear across the lake. I remember soaking in Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” on the beach that Labor Day weekend. Siamese Dream was the next big thing then, and I was totally sold. But there were some other gems in the Q101 playlist. I discovered The Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray, The The’s Dusk and The Sundays’ Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. But I also gravitated toward what seemed to be the more introspective side of the “alternative” movement. I fell hard for Tori Amos, for instance, even getting a little misty during “China”. Most of all, I remember just sitting, lonely, by the radio at night, listening to the new music showcase and waiting for someone on those airwaves to understand.
And I still remember the first time I heard “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. To me, it represented the marriage of the music I grew up on (Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne) with the new “alternative” stuff (Remember when everyone would compare Counting Crows to REM with a straight face? No? Well it used to happen in 1993. Take my word for it.). August and Everything After was the perfect album for me that year. It was an album about loneliness and unrequited love, which were both things I thought I knew very well when I was 15. The confessional, detail-oriented songwriting of songs like “Anna Begins” led directly to my own maturation as a songwriter, as I’m sure it did for many others (give Ben Gibbard some truth serum and ask him about “Anna Begins”). It also led to long late-night walks on the beach with my Walkman, and to the opening of places in my heart that I’ve labored very hard to keep open as I’ve gotten older.
Over the next couple years, as I started driving, started making money, and made my true high school friends, the music took on a new life – in my car. I made mixtapes almost monthly, sampling all my new favorites along with old stand-bys. Part of it was to prove my coolness to anyone who got in my mint-green 1977 Ford LTD (which was lovingly dubbed “The Iguana”), but it was also just an expression of freedom, because I could listen to whatever I wanted in my car (I think I blasted the Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free” in the school parking lot on the last day of school). I also was working after-school jobs and making money that went directly to CDs. I remember excitedly cracking open the packaging to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Radiohead’s The Bends and being transported into the strange, beautiful worlds those albums inhabited. Incidentally, these two albums would be the main influence on my first real band, which had its one and only gig at an end-of-school backyard party and played almost an entire set of Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins songs.
The Possibility Of Attachment
A lot has changed since my formative years. The inevitable advancement of technology has, for the most part, outmoded the ways in which I used to relate to music – the radio, the CD, the mixtape. With mp3s, file sharing, and free streaming, there is just such an abundance of music to sort through. Like anyone else with a passion for music, I have tried to keep on top of things. I keep an eye on Pitchfork and a few of the blogs. I check any leads that trusted friends have to offer. But the further I delve in, the more I realize how much I am unaware of. I realize the extent to which there may be music out there – that I might love – that will remain forever undiscovered. And this is something I think I’m OK with. In order to really feel like I was on top of everything (if that’s possible at all), I’d have to listen to so much music. And, at some point, I’d be cycling through so much music that it might become impossible to form a significant attachment to any one thing. I mean, if I tried to listen to everything, would I have the time to spend two straight weeks listening to nothing but Bon Iver, Bon Iver?
To me, this is all such a contrast to the days when I listened to the radio, found stuff I liked, and bought CDs. I only really listened to something like 25-35 CDs in a year, and I felt like I was in touch with new music. That may sound quaint now, with so many music blogs to go to, so much music at our fingertips, and fewer excuses for not hearing something that everyone is talking or blogging about. We have so many more options now, so much more freedom to discover things for ourselves. So why do I kind of miss the days of being a slave to the radio and my own limited collection of CDs and tapes? I guess it’s because the one thing we don’t have more of is time. Sure, we can multitask better than we used to, but we’re still limited by how much time we have and how much information we are humanly able to process. I increasingly feel like I’m going to miss something if I linger too long on any one thing. And I think a lot of us have gotten used to that feeling, it’s just part of life.
And it feels like all of this has stratified music fans. On the one hand there are the casual music fans who just don’t have the time to find the cool new music. They might like music, but they’ve chosen to prioritize things they find more important, be it school, career, family, social life, whatever. And they end up settling for whatever makes it through to corporate radio. On the other hand there are the music people, the people who spend endless hours discovering, downloading and listening to new music. Their friends do the same. They share and discuss it all online. Neither of these groups has much understanding of the other – they belong to different musical worlds. But when I was young, it was different. The divide between those groups wasn’t nearly as big. For instance, I listened to the radio for a couple hours each night, usually while doing my homework. It fit into the schedule of my everyday life. And there were a lot of people who did the same. Sure, we didn’t have access to as much music, but we found some really good stuff! And those of us who wanted to keep up with new music didn’t have to rearrange our priorities to do so.
We’ll always have limitations on our time (at least until the time machine comes along), but there used to be another limitation that no longer exists: money. With file sharing – and now Spotify – you can have just about any album you want at your disposal without paying a dime. But we used to be limited by how many CDs we could actually afford to buy. This was a huge difference. What the physical albums represented to me was a commitment. You had invested your money in this music; it couldn’t be easily consumed and cast aside. It sat on your shelf and begged you to give it another chance. Most of all, though, the sheer limitations of how much music you could hear on the radio and how many CDs you could afford to buy led to someone like me spending way more time with way fewer albums. And I formed attachments to those albums that remain to this day.
When my wife and I decided to unload most of our CD collection, we ended up keeping one shelf of CDs, about 120 total (out of 550 or so). Deciding which CDs to keep was surprisingly easy, but our physical CD collection no longer reflects what we actually listen to now. Most albums we have gotten in the last five years aren’t on the shelf; they’re only on the computer and the iPod. It was probably inevitable. Like the death of Q101. Once people stopped using the radio as a means to discover new music, Q101’s days were numbered. Some independent and college radio stations are still out there playing new music, but the days of everyone listening to the radio to keep in touch with new music have been over for a while. Most stations now just play what people already know, in very short rotations, with the Clear Channel playlists homogenizing stations across the country.
So a lot has changed. But there will always be limitations on what music we listen to. We will always be bound by our individual experiences and our unique personalities as well. Ultimately, there will always be a randomness involved in what we hear. You can’t really hear everything. As the Lester Bangs character says in Almost Famous, the music chooses you. So I have a subjective love for some Toad the Wet Sprocket songs because I lived with them passionately for a while when I was 15. Is this a bad thing? I know that, objectively, Toad the Wet Sprocket wasn’t one of the greatest bands of all time, but I’m glad they were there when I needed them. And sometimes we need the music. Sometimes nothing else will do. I’d like to think we can still take the time to let the great albums (and some not-so-great ones along the way) do what they were meant to do: be absorbed. I think it’s OK to let an album make you feel obsessed, understood, justified, diverted, entertained, lost, found, or satisfied. Even if just for a little while.