Saturday, 4 October 2014

Same Old Song

Because I'm something of an obsessive person, every once in a while I put myself through the process of listening to my entire music collection on iTunes. It's something I started doing back in college, when my music collection was smaller (and yet paradoxically, less portable): at the start of each quarter, I'd listen to all of my CDs in alphabetical order by artist, and I'd listen to each artists' albums in chronological order (because listening to all my Blur or Smiths CDs in alphabetical order is just crazy, amirite?).

This was workable because I only dragged around about 100 CDs in my carrying case, and because I listened to music constantly while I drove or studied. I kept up with this until I got iTunes and an iPod in 2006, although I'd shifted to doing it yearly by then. And the advantage of doing it on iTunes was that I could then keep track of which songs I listened to the most (told you I was obsessive).

The problem was, each year the whole sweep of my collection took longer and longer, because I was buying CDs pretty much constantly. I came to downloads pretty late, and most of those I actually did through Amazon or Spotify, rather than iTunes - no particular reason, except that after I got an Android phone I could put those MP3s on it, but not the files that iTunes converts into (iOS is a closed ecosystem, my ass).

Eventually I gave up on it, when I decided it was getting a little silly (and taking ages). The last time I did it was 2011, when it took almost six months.

Until this year! I figured moving across the world was a big life event, so I decided to mark it by listening to the whole collection again. And this time it took a full nine months.

That was partly because my music collection is a lot larger than it was three years ago (thanks to that full collection of 200+ Bach cantatas I got for Christmas one year), but also because listening to music has ceased to become an automatic activity for me. iTunes lets you keep track of a lot of metadata, including the last time you played a song. A lot of my music has sat unlistened to since that previous sweep, so I could see that at the time I was playing music early in the morning, when I was getting ready for work, and late in the evening as I spent my customary hour of reading before bed with my laptop on.

This year, I noticed, my music listening was limited to pretty much the weekends and a couple hours each night after work (when I wasn't watching Netflix). You'd think that with my increased driving I'd be able to make up for that, but no - my car's CD player is broken, and the car's so old anyway that there's not much point in fixing it.

But the kicker is that in the last nine months or so I haven't bought any new music. Sure, I received a couple of CDs for Christmas, but haven't felt the need to go looking for anything new since then - I'd heard "Unbelievers" from Vampire Weekend's new album on the radio a bunch, and figured I'd pick that up, but it appears I'm one step ahead of myself, as I discovered it was already in my iTunes when I got to V in my collection.

It's a little depressing when I think about it. I've got music to soundtrack pretty much every era of my life - high school and earlier, my first year of college and my last, the years after I graduated, and the year I spent here in Palo Alto temping and applying to grad schools, for example. But nothing really stands out from this year, which suggests that 2014 will kind of occupy a blank spot in my memory in future. Apart from that Vampire Weekend song, there hasn't been much on the radio, because like me, Live 105 is clearly more interested in music from the 90s than in finding anything new (burn!).

And yes, that's probably the real issue here. A few years ago, around the time of that really terrible Grizzy Bear concert, I got bored with what was going on in indie rock. There's only so much you can do with an electric guitar, bass, drums and/or synths, and the bands of the last couple of years have been on a crusade to show the limitations of that combo. Even (especially) the bands that seemed so promising in 2000-2005, like the Libertines or Bloc Party, have had so much trouble with making their subsequent albums interesting, that I've frankly given up on them. The last new band I got excited about was the Hold Steady, but they're hardly new, are they?

So is it any wonder that I gave up on indie in favor of classic rock, hip hop and classical? The problem is that, as I said, I'm not going automatically to listen to music whenever I'm home. Even Spotify has turned into just another place to keep playlists of stuff I already like (and don't try to convince me that Pandora or Songza are suitable replacements; I want to listen to the song in my head, not something vaguely similar thrown up by the computer algorithm).

Music is just hard to keep up with, now that I haven't been paying attention for a while. I could read Pitchfork every day, but it doesn't seem all that friendly to someone like me - lord knows I'm not averse to left-field stuff, but at least in the guitar-based stuff, there's a big gap between what I find innovative and what they find innovative (I swear I'll strangle the next person who says Grizzly Bear's albums are "composed", like classical music).

(As an aside, no, I don't hate Grizzly Bear - just their third album. I realized the distinction when I got to G this year - Yellow House and Veckatimest are fine, but Shields is a 48-minute sleeping pill.)

I suppose this shift in my attitude toward music is just part of the aging process. I've heard that you always stick with the music you loved when you were 24, an age that, let's be honest, has pretty much already disappeared from my rear-view mirror. But I just wish there was some motherlode of exciting, new music that I could discover - previous discoveries were Britpop in the 90s, the wave of indie that the Strokes kicked off in 2001, and the stuff coming out of the Midwest and Brooklyn from around 2006-07, like the Hold Steady and Sufjan Stevens.

I think those of us that really care about music are drawn to the stuff that tells us we're not alone, that someone else has the same feelings, fears and doubts and pleasures, as we do. It'd be nice to find someone new who can tell me that, rather than revisiting the stuff I already know I like.