The unheard music

by Rob Horning

1 May 2008


Over the past few years I have amassed a mountain of songs that I’ve never listened to, and lately I’ve begun the quixotic project of trying to listen to it all and sort out which songs I actually like so I can find them more easily. Consequently, I feel like I never listen to music for sheer pleasure or distraction anymore; it’s systematic, Sisyphean work, as I keep adding more unheard music to the pile. Not that it has deterred me, but I quickly realized that this is no way to decide whether I actually like these songs. In fact, most songs, if they have managed to make it to my hard drive, are pretty okay. The often snap decision about whether they will make it into the “good” playlist is typically an arbitrary one, based on whim and giving me the gratification of decisiveness for its own sake—the joy in this procedure doesn’t come from hearing the music itself. (This is a clue to why record reviews are so often irrelevant.)

And even then, when allegedly deciding I like a song, it’s not that I really like it in that moment exactly. It’s more that I have made a promise to myself to like it later, that at some point down the road it will be in rotation on my iPod and I will grow to truly appreciate it then. This realization leads me to believe that the value of any song has little to do with its intrinsic qualities and more to do with what I have managed to invest in them; the songs are repositories for my emotional energy, the energy I’ve spent consuming and remembering them, linking them in various ways to the story I tell myself about my life.

It may be that certain qualities in songs lend themselves to this kind of emotional investment. It helps if they are a relatively blank slate. If they are too specific, they will crowd out the feeling I need to be able to pour into them to like them. If the songs have timely political messages of their own or are specific gripes about how being a professional musician sucks, they will rarely attract any emotional energy investment. Generic songs about having feelings—falling in love, going to a party, leaving home, etc. These seem to work the best. Also, context contributes to whether or not a song can attract emotional investment. If it is in the right genre, or was in a movie, or was referenced by friends or something along those lines, it gives one a reason to pay extra attention to a song, and once you have singled a song out to actually pay attention to it, you are 99 percent of the way to liking it. (Not to belabor the obvious, but liking a song is no more than a willingness to really pay attention to it when it is playing.)

As part of my project, I was listening to an album called She & Him and I was thinking it was mediocre and was going to delete it. Then I remembered why I acquired it in the first place—because M. Ward (whose other albums I have already decided to like) was part of the band. That simple piece of knowledge changed the whole way I perceived the music; it focused my attention and shifted my attitude away from looking for reasons to reject it toward listening carefully for things to like. The songs are occasions for bringing to bear pieces of information like that, to connecting memories and data about what brought pleasure before. If a song can fit into a larger structure—a musican’s oeuvre, an approved genre, memories of having heard it at the bar or whatever—it becomes more listenable, likable for that reason. But they are too insubstantial in isolation to be fairly judged on their own merits. The criteria can’t emerge from some ideal notion of what a song should be; the criteria in practice emerge from the richness of the situation, which paradoxically enough, is a product of the limitations it imposes on what you can consume.

In general, I liked music a lot more when it was scarce. When it was scarce, I was much more likely to look for reasons to include songs in my life rather than reject them. It’s often constraints that make music meaningful to me—for example, I won’t forget the one tape I had in the car when I drove across New Mexico (a compilation of the Music Machine, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and the Gestures); those songs will always have that peculiar resonance. The songs in heavy rotation on the oldies station in Phoenix was partial to in the 1990s—“Woman, Woman” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, etc.—will always signify that specific time and place, what I was feeling then, the drives I used to take down I-10 late at night, crossing the Maricopa County Line on the way to Tucson. I was discovering new music in a very measured way, and I felt like it was expanding my mind at a pace at which I could assimilate it, enjoy it.

Now, there’s no danger of my ever running out of music; there is no need for me to be discovering more. (Maybe I’m just old, and that’s why my discovery phase is over. Just about everything I hear sounds like something else I’ve heard already, and if it doesn’t, I get cranky over its newfangledness.) Instead, I am haunted by the fear of running out of attention. So it helps when there are limits imposed on how much music there is to consume, a limitation that was once imposed by radio playlists and the amount of money I was willing to spend on music.

Back in the day, I imagine the infancy of the culture industry also limited things—the number of records that received distribution was much smaller. This morning, I had reached the a compilation of the Shangri-Las greatest hits. After sorting out the obvious keepers—“Walking in the Sand,” etc.—I was left with 20 songs that were all cut from the same cloth, all decent in their own right, but indistinguishable from one another. Being able to hear them all at once, with no expenditure or effort, undermined songs that in isolation might have seemed dramatic, powerful, singular. And they all probably seemed that way when they were singles, and you lived with them on the radio for a finite amount of time and grew to like them or not. The songs weren’t made to withstand being clicked through, rapid-fire, to determine which are good and which aren’t. (No music is made for that.) I ended up grasping for reasons to pick one over the other to put on the keeper list, thinking ashamedly to myself, If this song were to crop up in a commercial or get covered by some other band I heard of, I’d keep it for sure. 

So while I think the subscription-type services that will allow users access to all of recorded music that Reihan Salam describes in this Slate article are inevitable, I don’t think they will do much for people’s enjoyment of music. They may discover a lot more stuff, but only in the collector’s sense of having filed away an awareness of it. It will become much harder to find the time and the discipline to invest emotional energy in a few songs when the temptation will always be there to indulge that antithetical pleasure of judging—in or out? keep or toss from the playlist? The editing will be a never-ending process, and we’ll never get to the point where we have the time to listen to the carefully compiled playlist and start making the effort of investing ourselves in the music, in bringing the songs to life so that they can return the favor later on.

Perhaps that is why muxtape, the site that lets you upload and share online “mixtapes” of 12 or so songs is such an attractive idea—not so much for the consumer but for the uploader. It takes those playlists of chosen songs and gives them an immediate broader context for emotional investment—a community of fellow listeners. It helpfully imposes some parameters, limits that sharpen your focus. It becomes a forum for making your listening habits performative. Which 12 songs will go together? How can I put my tastes to use to impress somebody out there who might be listening? Isn’t that the bottom line in amassing a mammoth knowledge of pop music in the first place—impressing people? But when you are simply listening to music—for yourself, rather than brandishing the extent of your familiarity for others—you are just remembering yourself and what effort you spent in the past to really listen. That energy returns to you, as if the song supplies it. That seems to me to be what it means to like a song. And if we don’t budget the time to make that investment, if we feel too overwhelmed with choices to bother to attach much feeling to the choices we make, we’ll end up amassing all kinds of music, enjoying the pleasures of curating a collection while not really liking any of the music.

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