I keep thinking about this question of how to get older without turning into a crank. And today, I want to talk about one of the methods I’ve long used in my attempts to avoid crankery. It’s a fairly simple one, at least in theory:
Listen to music that’s being made now.
My rule is this: I don’t let myself just listen to music that was recorded when I was in college and my early twenties (or earlier). I make a conscious effort to listen to at least some music that’s being made now, by musicians and bands who are still alive and still working. (And no, reunion tours don’t count.)
But for some reason, that can be a hard thing for people to do.
I was just reading the comic collection R. Crumb Draws the Blues. (Conflict of interest alert: it’s published by the company I work for.) In a couple of pieces, Crumb was waxing nostalgic about how great old folk and old blues and old jazz and old country music was — all well and good, I heartily support those sentiments. He was ranting about how music has become professionalized, something an audience listens to rather than something a culture engages in — again, sentiments I largely share. In fact, one of the big reasons I’m a folk nerd is how strongly I feel about people making their own music and other art as a way of resisting homogenized corporate culture.
But he was also ranting about how universally horrible modern music was. And that, I have no truck with. I love R. Crumb, I like this book, and I certainly respect the guy’s cred on the topic of old- time music. But I think he completely missed the boat here.
And I want to talk about what that boat is, and why it’s important.
The Crumb piece reminded me of a comment Dave Barry once made. I forget now what the piece was about… but the comment was something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing here), “Music made in the ’70s is all crap. The music I listened to in the ’60s… now, that was great music. But ’70s music, it’s just this bland, banal junk.”
And I was gobsmacked by how ignorant and out- of- touch this was. Yes, the ’70s were the decade of Bread and America and Hall & Oates. But some amazing music was made in the ’70s. I mean, the ’70s was when punk happened. The Clash, the Boomtown Rats, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Stranglers… all ’70s bands. And not just punk. David Bowie, Neil Young, Talking Heads… ’70s. Some of these folks got their start in the ’60s, and some had careers that extended into the ’80s… but they were making some of their best music right in the heart of the supposedly banal ’70s.
And some seriously crap music was being made in the ’60s. Sure, you can wax nostalgic about the brilliant cutting- edge music made in 1967. You wanna know what the Number One hit song of 1967 was? “To Sir With Love.”
Which brings me to my first major point. I think there are two things that make it easy to think everything was better in the good old days. There’s Sturgeon’s Law — and there’s the filtering process of time.
Sturgeon’s Law states, quite simply, that 90% of everything is crap. Romantic comedies, symphonies, science fiction novels, porn videos, dress designs, epic poems, comic books, popular music… 90% of all of it is crap.
But time has a tendency to filter out the crap. We don’t listen to the mediocre 18th century operas; we don’t read the mediocre 19th century novels; we don’t watch the mediocre silent movies. We listen to Mozart, read Jane Austen, watch Buster Keaton. We listen to Janis Joplin and The Who. “To Sir With Love”? Not so much.
It’s not a perfect filtering process. Some good stuff gets filtered out; some mediocre crap gets through the screen. But on the whole, we let the crap get swallowed into the maw of history, and hang onto the good stuff. Which makes it very, very easy to mistakenly think that the operas and novels and movies and popular songs of the old days were so much better than any of the crap they’re making today.
And we tend to hang on to the good stuff in our memories as well. If we have fond memories of our youths or our college days or whatever, we tend to remember the good music and so on from those days… and conveniently forget how much dreck was around back then. And since it takes a certain amount of effort, and you need to sort through a fair amount of dreck, to find good music or whatever being made now, it’s way too easy to just keep listening to the stuff that we know is good and that we know we like.
Which brings me to my next point.
There’s a Jonathan Richman song, “Summer Feeling,” that captures almost perfectly what I’m getting at. The song is about the giddy, exuberant, irresponsible- in- the- best- sense- of- the- word freedom of youth: childhood, or college, or whatever youth you had that you loved. And it’s about how important it is to hang on to some of that feeling and to re-create it here and now… and how poisonous and sad it is to just let yourself be haunted by memories and lost opportunities. (For the usually chipper Jonathan Richman, the song is kind of a downer.)
And there’s a verse that goes like this:
When even fourth grade starts looking good
Which you hated
And first grade’s looking good too
And you boys long for some little girl that you dated
Do you long for her or for the way you were?
Do you long for her, or for the way you were?
Do you long for the music… or do you long for who you were when you were first listening to the music?
And when you long for that feeling, do you try to find something happening here and now that makes you feel that way? Or do you just listen to the music that used to make you feel that way?
Which brings me — somewhat harshly, I’ll admit — to my real point.
I think nostalgia is the easy way out.
I think it’s way too easy to just reflexively say, “Music/ life/ whatever was so much better back in the old days… but those days can never be recaptured, they’re gone for good. So instead of trying to find music or movies or whatever stuff is good now, I’m just going to keep listening to stuff from the old days that I know I like. And I’m going to gradually sink into old crankhood, and gripe about the world instead of taking part in it or trying to understand it.”
It’s a cop-out. It’s a way of evading responsibility for participating in your life, and in the world — here, and now. It’s an excuse for avoiding the risks and the emotional rollercoaster of engaging with the world around you. It’s an excuse for sitting on the sidelines and watching the world go by. This modern world sucks — so why bother?
Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here: This modern world does not suck. Like Jonathan Richman from another song, I’m in love with the modern world. I love literary graphic novels, and slow-core, and feminism, and the atheist blogosphere, and queer contra dancing, and readily available legal pornography, and organic produce delivered to my door, and same-sex marriage, and email, and “The Office,” and being openly bisexual without fear. Of course there are disappointments and horrors in the modern world. You don’t have to tell me that. Some are the same old disappointments and horrors we’ve had since the dawn of humanity; some are brand new to our time. But there are joys in the modern world as well: some are the same old joys we’ve had since the dawn of humanity, and some are brand new to our time.
And the modern world has one enormous advantage over the old days: It’s the world I live in. It’s the world I can take part in, now, today. The old days had their plusses and minuses (and of course I’ll enjoy their plusses if I can); the modern world has its plusses and minuses. But the modern world is a parade I can march in. Nothing beats that.
You know what? If what you truly love is old- time bluegrass or ’60s psychedelia? That’s cool. It might behoove you to check out some modern music anyway — there are contemporary musicians doing some interesting interpretations of bluegrass and psychedelia — but life is too short to listen to music that you hate. There are wonderful things from the past, and by all means, we should be enjoying them and preserving them and keeping them alive.
But we shouldn’t treat our aesthetic preferences as a moral imperative. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s a serious life philosophy to gripe about kids these days and their crazy fashions. We shouldn’t act as if shutting out the modern world somehow makes us discerning and superior.
And if we catch ourselves reflexively saying, “(X) was so much better in the old days, they just don’t make (X) like they used to,” I think it’s worth making an effort to remember all the generic, banal crap that was being cranked out in the old days… and to pay attention to the good stuff being made right now.
P.S. Right now, my favorite band is Low, this gorgeous slow-core band with harmonies that send literal physical chills through my body. I’m also listening to Varttina, a band from Finland that marries eerie Eastern European folk harmonies with a peppy pop sensibility; and the Mountain Goats, a “guy with a guitar” project that’s somehow both lush and spare; and Nick Cave, who feeds my inner morbid brooder; and Joanna Newsom, with her profoundly strange voice that on first hearing sounds like a cat wailing and on second hearing sounds like an avant- garde angel; and Radiohead, who walk that beautiful thin line between accessible straight-up rock and edgy industrial unlistenability. Just for starters. What music being made today are you listening to, and what do you like about it? And on the larger question — what specific techniques have you developed for avoiding crankhood and staying in touch with the world as you get older?
Also in this series:
On Not Being a Crank