I love music. There are ways in which music is one of my favorite things, maybe my most favorite thing. And yet, at this point in my life, I seldom listen to music. So: WTF?
Part of the problem is pretty basic and really boils down to: what am I going to listen to? Like a lot of white Gen-Xers, I spent my youth listening to things like Iggy Pop, The Clash, The Velvet Underground, Nirvana, with doses of The Cure and Blondie for lighter side.
There's a sense in which I never stopped loving music like that. But it presents a problem, which is, how does it fit into my life? So much of a certain kind of popular music puts me in a certain mood -- a mood almost incompatible with the life I live now. At this point, when is the right moment for getting all wound up with aggressive, sexual, and possibly destructive behavior? Answer: never.
A lot of people my age transition into other things. They develop a new interest in Latin jazz, or classic R&B, or whatever. Abstractly this seems like the ideal solution. But for various reasons it's not happening for me.
One of those reasons has to do with something I think of as "music start-up costs" -- something that is huge for me but that I almost never hear people talking about. The idea of music start-up costs is that for me, listening to new music is hugely different from listening to familiar music. And it's not just different -- it's difficult.
Listening to new music, even when I like it, and actively want to listen to it, often feels to me really, really challenging. It's something I have to make a plan about, something I don't want to do at the end of long day doing other cognitively challenging things, something that uses up active willpower and is not at all a form of relaxation.
Is this something particular about me? That I can't enjoy music without entering into it, that I can't enter into it if I can't understand it, that I can't understand it on the first few listens? Or is this one of those things everyone experiences but just doesn't talk about because it doesn't seem cool?
Right now I have a ton of music on my iPhone that I want to listen to but haven't and maybe won't. Frank Ocean. Kendrick Lamar. The new MIA album Matangi. Watch the Throne. Zebra Katz. An album of old remastered Scott Joplin songs. People told me to listen to Formation -- I want to, but I haven't.
All of this music is probably great, and all of it is music that if I'd heard it a few times without realizing it -- so my subconscious could process it without me -- I'd probably be all into it. It's all music I want to listen to, but because of the start-up costs, it isn't happening.
In one sense, I expect that having this kind of midlife music crisis is a pretty common and universal sort of thing -- I mean, there's a reason that when we picture middle-aged people we picture people driving around playing whatever they danced to in high school.
In another sense, though, I feel like my experience tells us something interesting about life in 2016 North America. Because the obvious thing that's missing, the thing that would solve my problem, is just hearing music without having to go out of my way to listen to it.
And there is something about the modern media landscape, where you can pick and choose exactly what you want and everyone has their own micro-obsession, that seems to decrease this sense of things just being in the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong: I love the modern media landscape. I love the way if your thing is some tiny thing that no one else likes you can get all into it all by yourself. But -- still, I think it does have this negative effect. I mean, it's different from the old days where you'd turn your alarm clock to KROQ and you'd hear whatever everyone else was hearing.
Actually, one of the few music experiences I am still able to get really into is opera. One reason, I think, is that once you're at an opera, not only are you a captive audience, but the structure of the music itself is a clever mix of the familiar and the new. Each bit of music is new, but the underlying themes are always there.
After I saw Verdi's Rigoletto for the first time, I couldn't stop thinking about "La donna è mobile." (Yes, this literally translates as "women are fickle," but if you think that's what it means in context you're missing the whole point of the opera). When I looked it up, I learned that soon after the premier in 1851, "every gondolier in Venice was singing it."
How cool is that? I don't know what the 2016 equivalent of this would be, or even if there is one. For now, the closest I get is when I go to my exercise class, where the geniuses at Les Mills have picked out just the songs I didn't know I wanted to hear, and I fall in love without knowing it, and then I go home and listen to the songs -- songs that are already utterly familiar to me.
I don't love it that my music listening is so highly determined by fitness people. Something about that seems wrong. But what am I going to do?