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Listening Backward

January 17, 2011


Music’s always been a pretty big part of my life.  Throughout much of my life, however, I can recall utilizing it as a social divider as much as a source of entertainment and enjoyment.  As early as my preschool years, I remember playing my “Dinosaur Songs” cassette tape at full volume when the tyrannosaurus rex song came on (while my parents were having a meeting in the living room).  I thought the song was awesome, and I wanted them to know how cool I was because I was listening to it.  (To be fair, the song is pretty hardcore.  You can listen to it here).  Later, in elementary school, my older sister and her highschool friends were in a Phantom of the Opera themed marching band.  Yes, I didn’t realize how dorky it was at the time, and I absolutely blasted the theme song when she brought her friends over.  She didn’t really appreciate that, but I thought it made it quite clear that I fit in.  As I transitioned into middle school, I can remember two separate incidents: once, I let a schoolmate of mine (a hardcore boy band fan) listen to an Against All Authority song that I had on a mix CD, and was quite pleased with myself after witnessing her reaction.  The other time I’m less proud about and involves my short-lived fascination with Limp Bizkit–and that’s embarrassing enough, so we’ll just forget about that one.

Anyway, my point is that I have a long history of trying to prove something through the music that I listened to.  Yes, it’s a terrible way to define yourself, and I’m not proud of it, but I have to admit that–while growing up–a significant portion of my image came from distancing myself from people who I thought couldn’t appreciate music the way I could.

While it’s not surprising that my late elementary and early middle school years were focused on finding the fastest, hardest, most countercultural music I could, this elitism broke new ground when file-sharing hit the internet in the late 90s.  All the sudden I had access to as much music as my 56k modem would allow, rather than the tiny amount that I could afford on my pittance of an allowance.


Ah yes, LimeWire... because Napster wasn't Mac compatible

Quickly, I finished downloading the discographies of some of my favorite bands: The Beatles, They Might Be Giants, Rancid, NOFX, Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, Weezer, Braid and The Get Up Kids.  I realized that, for once, I could be ahead of the curve.  For once, my music collection wasn’t limited.  For once, I could know everything about something that was so important to me.  Since I had recently moved on from punk rock to the burgeoning late-90s indie/emo scene, I already had a head start (this wave of emo was still pretty new and underground).  It was enough of a headstart that by the time the emo scene exploded with Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday I had already mastered my game.  However, as soon as this scene became overly fashionable, I had to move on.  I no longer saw myself as one of the whiny 16 year-olds (despite the fact that I was only 17), and I needed something that represented my more “mature” appreciation of music.

Again, I needed to redefine myself based upon what I listened to.

This led to a new surge of mp3s making their way through my modem: The New Pornographers, The Shins, Pavement, Superchunk, Modest Mouse, Cap’n Jazz… they all found homes on my computer (well, my Dad’s computer, to be fair).  Indie Rock is possibly the most elitist genre there possibly could be (because of its need to be perpetually underground), and I was trapped there for the next 4 years as I delved further and further into obscurity.

Okay, it never got this bad--but I'm amused that this is the first image result for "lost hipster"

After my college years, I realized pretty quickly that the indie music scene had become such a farce that I could no longer identify with it.  It was at this point that I finally figured out why I was never satisfied.  It wasn’t the music that I loved, it was the image that the music gave me.  Yeah, of course that was always obvious, but obvious things aren’t always as clear when you’re reluctant to view things from an outside perspective.

Let me rephrase my earlier statement: I did love the music.  I’ve always loved the music.  Music will always be very important to me and it will always be a huge part of my life.  However, my sincere appreciation had gotten so tangled up in the idea of music and the image that it brought with it that I couldn’t extricate one from the other.  My problem was that I was so afraid of being categorized that I always had to find a new, less obvious category to put myself in.  Unfortunately, it’s still a category, and there will always be a category.  At least now there’s less of myself invested in something so fragile.


This is where I get to my main point:


There’s a certain element of mass-consumption that scene-chasers (or leaders, I guess) are required to partake in.  It’s a very stressful experience, but what’s more unsettling is that all the rampant consumption hampers the more basic enjoyment of music.  If you always want to be on the cutting edge, you’re not able to rest or you’ll fall behind.  You’ll become outdated and you’ll lose your “cred”.


...but my guess is you can find it here.

A few years back I decided this is not the way I wanted to live my life:  always in pursuit, even at the top of your game.  I decided to stop looking for new music (fortunately the lack of promoters sending me free CDs made this much easier), and to focus on finding what I had been missing out on.  Really, if your appreciation of music comes only from your encyclopedic knowledge of obscure bands from the last 20 years, you’re missing a HUGE amount of quality content.

I realized that I’m painfully uneducated in the basics of Rock & Roll.  So my new mission has been one that neglects finding whatever the new underground image is; one that rejects the premise that music is a commodity; one that–instead of focusing on myself and what it can do for me–focuses on the music and what appreciation I can glean as it is.

So I’ve gone back to the basics and I’m filling in a long backlog that I’ve avoided while scene-chasing.  Hopefully, listening backward will prove to be less pretentious than listening forward.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 18, 2011 1:10 am

    Reading over this post (great post btw) , I felt as most collectors of indie music do. You were hitting close to home and I felt immediately defensive for my past and what I consider “my” music. Being the first (to know of a band). That’s what it used to be all about. Mine mine mine. It was a rather greedy way of expression. Recently I have come to realize that the amount of music I listened to and appreciated as a youngster helped me discover a range of obscure music that I may not have expanded myself to if I never “rebelled” against the mainstream radio.

    To this day, I claim to be an music elitist because there are some genres/artists I didn’t think I could bring myself to listen to. But in all honesty even if I don’t acknowledge the artist as something I would listen to, I can’t fault them for knowing what works and what certain individuals like and catering to that.

    If you asked a 16 year old version of me what I thought of it when my favorite indie bands started getting commercial success, you would have been bombarded with “sell-outs” “now it’s mainstream and no longer as cool and exclusive” comments. Now that I am older (and have a mortgage), commercial success is great. Getting radio play is fantastic. Getting recognized by the Grammys rock. I just wish they would get recognized earlier so people wouldn’t have to work backwards (or in some cases never really invest in their earlier works which sometimes are some of their best work).

    This quote:
    “Indie Rock is possibly the most elitist genre there possibly could be (because of its need to be perpetually underground)”
    speaks lots to how I ran my musical life.

    Now I cherish my collection of music for it’s range and memories. I hate country music but you’ll find Randy Travis on my iPod because it reminds me of junior high crushes. Music is my hot button. I list it as a hobby because I care that much for it and I have a perpetual need to collect all albums and songs for each artist I invest in. I’ve used it as form of expression, relief and coping.

    I have likewise started gravitating toward some historical artists such as Pink Floyd because I know now how they have played an integral part of music history, Unlike when I was younger and passed them off as an old band that had no “indie cred”

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