[6 May 2008]
There have been many bands I loved, and many more songs that defined me. But it was a YouTube clip that renewed my very connection to music.
Six months ago, I was browsing YouTube, still a relatively new phenomenon to me. After exhausting the number of old TV shows I could look up, I realized there had to be music acts on the site as well. I watched R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe duet with Natalie Merchant on the lovely “Hello in There”, Beatles Anthology outtakes not included on my original VHS set, Freddie Mercury inspiring thousands of people to clap along in unison to “Radio Ga Ga” at Wembley Stadium, and Rufus Wainwright channeling Judy Garland while clad in a tuxedo jacket and heels.
It was fun to revisit these extraordinary and outlandish performances; it was also a trip down memory lane to the person I used to be: a music snob. I became infatuated with R.E.M. just as their popularity had peaked during the Monster tour, and they had a served as a gateway band to other seminal artists that the Athens foursome had found influential, like Television, Patti Smith, and the Velvet Underground. By the time I started college, I was obsessed with discovering both new music and decades old classics, and prided myself on my devotion. That passion derives from the rituals that went along with buying a new CD: playing it repeatedly in my Discman, memorizing lyrics, reading every word of the liner notes, poring over music reviews and interviews. Used record stores were the equivalent of panning for gold—I never knew what I’d find, but chances were I’d strike it rich. It was an invigorating time, and I felt privileged to know about such amazing artistry.
Music-sharing software came along just before I graduated. I was immediately suspicious of this new technology. I liked the opportunities it offered in downloading rare tracks and fun pop songs I would never otherwise consider buying, but I also feared albums would become a lost art. I even wrote an elegy of sorts in my first published clip, “Is the End of the Album Near?”, opining that Napster would unfortunately cause the album to be phased out of public consciousness like vinyl had been before it.
The iPod seemed to conclusively prove my point. It just didn’t inspire in me the near-religious immersion that had made listening to music an intensely intimate and rewarding experience. The tactile experience of ripping open the CD packaging and placing the disc in my stereo was replaced by an unsatisfying click of the “Buy Album” button. I consequently became less attached to my digital purchases; listening to them with tinny white earphones made the experience feel impersonal.
But there was another factor: it was growing too expensive to be a fan. I was used to purchasing used discs at $5 a pop on a weekly basis, and a few more dollars on newer releases. Paying for records via iTunes at the same pace would be just too pricey a habit. Besides no longer being able to afford to buy music, I couldn’t keep up with all the buzzworthy bands. It suddenly felt like there were too many emerging groups that critics were fawning over, and since I couldn’t afford to buy their music, I gradually stopped paying attention to the industry altogether.
Had I outgrown fandom, or just become too fatigued from trying to stay informed about the latest releases? Either way, I was ashamed of the way I dropped music so coldly, like abandoning a long-trusted friend. And while I couldn’t deny that the connection was no longer there, I didn’t know who I was without it.
I was thinking about my ambivalent relationship with music as I kept plugging more names into YouTube’s search engine. The last one was Guster, the Boston-based college rock band I accidentally came across during a concert I went to wanting to see their opening act. I missed them, but was able to catch Guster, and was impressed by their music, by turns melancholic and uplifting, yet always gorgeously melodic.
The search results turned up a wealth of concert clips, but most of them were marred by blurry camera work and noisy audiences. Thankfully, I was able to find a handful of performances from a promo stop in Providence, RI. The first link I clicked on was “Jesus on the Radio”, from their 2003 album Keep It Together. Two minutes and eleven seconds later, tears were streaming down my face.
I think I already had a lot of emotion built up inside me from viewing the other clips on YouTube and feeling a gradual reconnection to these songs I had adored. But this one was different from all the others. There was a pureness to the presentation—no pyrotechnics, no gimmicks, no screaming fans trying to sing along. Just the four of them in full view of the video camera, sharing the stage as equals, the percussionist elbow to elbow with the guitarist.
The song was so raw and joyful that I experienced a visceral jolt from it. I didn’t get what they were singing about (“Jesus on the radio?”, “Yellow bucket seat?”), but it didn’t even matter. It was the way they sang it—the way their voices join together in a golden harmony, the way the lead singer raised his head and crooned heavenward.
I don’t know which was more pleasurable: the quirky, tuneful song or the way Guster had performed it. I watched the clip about five more times, trying to understand why it had evoked such a strong reaction. What I came to understand was that fandom, the kind of dedicated snobbery that means knowing about the Arctic Monkeys before Pitchfork does, no longer thrilled me. I had become burned out, and my iPod just hurried the demise of my obsession.
Watching “Jesus on the Radio” struck a chord because it brought me back to basics. Twelve years before I read music magazines cover to cover and hungered for a comprehensive record collection, I simply became infatuated with a song, R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback”. I didn’t know if the song was cool, if critics championed it, or what the lyrics meant. All I knew was that I just had to hear it again. And again and again and again.
Guster reminded me of the place where I had started so long ago. I realized that just a simple love and appreciation for a song was all that mattered in the end—how it finds you, and how it moves you.
I have a deep kinship with music once more, while embracing the fact that I’m not the fan I used to be, and will never be again. I’ve also made peace with my iPod, liberally employing the “shuffle” option, but often dipping into the albums loaded onto it, too. One of these is Keep It Together, a record that keeps me looking heavenward, grateful to have finally let go of my past insecurities, and just enjoy.