Friday, October 12, 2018

Music: The Best of the 80's, 90's, and "Today"

They say that your musical tastes peak when you're 18, but that's only true for people who never worked in music retail.

When I was a kid, in my early teens around 1999-2002, the radio was always tuned in my dad's car to Mix 99.9, which played the "Best of the 80's, 90's, and Today." It's a little weird, I suppose, to think of my dad tooling around in his busted-up 1990 Buick Century listening to Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair" but that was what was on. It wasn't until a little later that he made the move down the dial to the Classic Rock station of Q107 to become Peak Dad.

I'm not sure he had any nostalgia for 80's hits like Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen" or Human League's "Don't You Want Me." And I am not sure how attached he was to the then-current hits by Foo Fighters and Sugar Ray and Matchbox Twenty. Maybe he was motivated by a renewed sense of youth after he and my mom separated. When I was very young, the radio in our 1988 Plymouth Voyager was the Oldies station, 1050 CHUM AM, playing the actual soundtrack of his actual youth. Or maybe, as often seems to be the case with my dad, he happened to turn the dial that way one day, heard something he liked, and never changed it.

If that's the case, I would strongly expect it was Pearl Jam's cover of "Last Kiss" that caught his ear. He always liked that. Or maybe he liked Barenaked Ladies because they sang about Yoko Ono and Brian Wilson, and they were everywhere on Canadian Radio in 1999.

Neither of us, obviously, were really children of the 80's. He was a dad for that decade, his record collection pretty much stopping with Born in the USA. I was a kid out of time in the 90's, more familiar with Elvis, Motown and the Monkees than with what was actually playing on MuchMusic (Canada's equivalent to MTV.) The most up-to-date musical opinion I had before I turned 12 was the love of Aerosmith (and other hard rock bands) I had inherited from my mercurial eldest brother Brandon, who is capable of being intensely interested in a topic for a short period of time, devouring it whole, and then never bothering with it again, like Chris Cooper's orchid thief in the movie Adaptation.

I was very lucky then to be a teen in the age of piracy, and any new old thing I learned about could be on my Winamp playlist after a reasonable three minute download time. I used that, and the AllMusic guide, as my musical education.

When you're 16 and your favourite songs are twenty years old, it's not nostalgia, its rebellion. You're rebelling against the present, which is intensely marketed to you, the "youth." That's why every cool outsider in a teen movie has a Lou Reed poster. Of course, this can be co-opted and commercialized, too - that's also why every cool outsider in a teen movie has a Lou Reed poster. It's become so insidious and so pervasive that actually liking current stuff when you're young has become rebellious, and liking old music is now passe. But that was then.

After following my dad into Classic Rock in high school and much of University - to the exclusion of pretty much anything new that wasn't the White Stripes - I resurfaced in the early 2010's with a mission. I was hired at a CD store. I needed to know what was new.

That was the impetus for my first music blog, Sound of the Week. Some of the writing there is trash, but the mission - to write about a different CD every week, ideally something I had never heard before (and was therefore new to me, if not altogether new) - was a noble one. At first I found it hard to admit the value of the new stuff - if I liked it, I still selfishly felt the need to take it down a peg. Later I became somewhat pollyannaish, banishing all negativity and criticism as harmful to my mandate, almost to the point of coddling the music. It's a balancing act, you know.

(I've also always had my blindspots in hip hop, R&B, dance and country, but people in my demographic often do.)

By some astonishing coincidence, the "SOTW Years" were an insanely vibrant time for pop and rock music. The Internet had democratized creativity of all times but abundant streaming had not yet created a deluge where it was impossible to get everyone's attention. I always say that by some coincidence - surely unrelated to my biases as a listener, seller and consumer, at my age in that time - that every band that was active from 2009 to 2014, the years I worked in music retail, somehow managed to do the best work of their career. CDs were released by Beck, The Hold Steady, Arcade Fire, the National, Hollerado, Japandroids, Sleigh Bells, Adele, Lykke Li, Robyn, and many others, that rank as career bests, even industry bests.

(The exception to this is Florence & The Machine, whose career best, How Big How Blue How Beautiful came out just after this period ended.)

After 2014, I backed away from new music just a bit. SOTW had already been flagging because I spent an entire year listening to nothing, seemingly, except for R.E.M.'s Greatest Hits. My next music blog, the awkwardly-named Sonic Sandwich, did have some "new music" content but was really about digging up the gems of the past and putting them back in peoples' ears - whether they were fifty, twenty, or three years old. The appeal of that site, I always thought, was that I posted from Mon to Fri and every day I could be putting any song on your screen from any artist any time, as long as it was worth a moment of your time. Since I couldn't be ahead of the curve, I got ahead of the echoes.

The reason for that site's demise was actually because one day in 2016 I listened to the soundtrack to Hamilton, and like R.E.M. several years before it consumed me so much that I couldn't write about anything else, and in fact could hardly sum up my extreme feelings about that work - at least, not in a timely manner.

I don't write about music anymore, because I have too much self-consciousness about my demographic and, now that I'm over 30, my personal irrelevance. That doesn't mean I don't still think about it, and boast about my refined tastes, and some of those thoughts might even be novel and worth repeating, but I doubt I'll ever become as invested in music, or the narrative of myself as someone who talks about it, as I was for those years. Not until I reach 40 and permit myself to be the nostalgic old coot I am destined to be

These days, when the radio is on (when I'm washing dishes or we're in the car,) it's still at the 70's, 80's and 90's station, (now Boom 97.3.) I'm reliving my youth, which is not the time when these songs were new, but when they were new to me. There's something so comforting about that - and comfort would be the enemy of a fiery, relevant music blog like the one I may, years ago, have strived (striven? strove?) to create, when I was an eager student of tunes. But the music is just there to provide an atmosphere in which I can live my tired, old, comfortable life, the way you're supposed to enjoy it. Sometimes sad, but mostly luxuriating in things I already know I like, and thst connect me to the people around me.

Sometimes at work, when I don't need to focus and can let my mind wander, I permit myself a chance to listen to something new. If it's good, the urge to get out there and spread the word rises. But the same thing has always been true and moreso now: everyone who needs to find a song does, and I was always the one who was a little behind.

Keep on rockin'

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