Existential Crisis at the NME Awards

I keep forgetting how great The Morning News can be. Every couple of years I read something on there that blows me away and I pledge to keep an eye on it from now on. But then I get overwhelmed by their prolificacy and I give up trying to keep up. But I stumbled up another great piece: Attending the NME Awards With Pete Doherty and a Whole Bunch of Actual Musicians, Feeling Nostalgic by Jonathan Bell. In an entirely great article, this passage hit me like a brick in the face:

At what point does new music suddenly cease to stimulate the brain? When will I step back and refuse to engage with what is happening now in favour of the golden past locked within my mind? We think about music in different ways as we grow older. Inevitably, to look back, to re-listen is to try and recapture a point forever lost in time, a fleeting moment, that unique and magic instant when life and love and hormones and brain chemistry collided to nail a piece of music to a specific and unrepeatable point in space and time. To revisit the music of one’s youth is like waking from a vivid dream and feeling it literally slip from the memory, leaving one clinging for a shred of the experience while all that surrounds it tumbles away. The act of listening to a track again and again and again is a doomed attempt to bring that moment back.

When served up with something new, I realize I’m looking to feed the inner nostalgic (and quash my inner cynic in the process), rather than be seduced. This is why the cyclical nature of sound and fashion dominates cultural discourse, why we are condemned to seek out the strange conjunction of the new—if not necessarily the thrilling—and the elusively familiar. This is the perpetual dilemma of the ageing music fan: We’re constantly seeking novelty that will give us the same warm glow of the familiar. And yet nothing new sounds influence-free, and we tend to give our influences too much credit.

The whole thing is well worth reading. I see a lot of people my age who’ve stopped seeking out any new music. These aren’t mainstream lemmings, but people who used to care passionately about music. And still do…just not new music.

Sometimes I wonder if grown-ups like me still seeking out good new music is yet another symptom of our childish, adolescent culture that encourages 40 year old dudes to buy an PS3, an Xbox, and a Wii… And then I wonder if it’s time to read High Fidelity again…

11 thoughts on “Existential Crisis at the NME Awards”

  1. Sheesh, that does get the wheels turning. I know that I get particularly nostalgic feelings with certain albums (Stone Roses, The The’s Mind Bomb, etc.) but not necessarily with other favorites from my past (Wilco’s Being There). Or maybe I do…

  2. As a card-carrying Gen-Xer, I’ve been amazed to see how much of our generation has refused to let go of the trappings of youth, even while embracing the classic symbols of “growing up” (steady job, marriage, mortgage, children, etc).

    But when it comes to music, I wondered if aging was a factor for those “people who used to care passionately about music. And still do…just not new music.” Except that I speak to people in their late 20s and early 30s and encounter that same disdain for a lot of new music. (And I won’t even get into the teenage children of friends and relatives, many of whom—especially those musically-inclined—who refuse to listen to most music made in their lifetimes.) Sure, they enjoy being turned on to the likes of TV on the Radio, or some other promising band that pops up here and there with a seemingly strong sense of purpose and/or intent, but there’s a general perception out there that many of these fresh-faced upstarts propped up by the likes of Pitchfork, Stereogum, and the rest of the hipper-than-thou blogosphere, approach making music not as a true calling but as something to do while they figure out where to go for an MBA or something; a ‘first job out of college’ experience, if you will. And people can smell that lack of commitment from a mile away.

    In the end, most of these bands will be gone 5 years from now, either by design or as a result of the fickle nature of their increasingly pliable fanbases, which are either bored or—depending on the speed and level of notoriety gained by the artist in question—consumed by the spirit of backlash 6 months into the artists’ arrival on the scene. Despite a band’s ardent desire to make a realistic go of it, no one with that kind of following can aspire to any sort of longevity. Of course, I suspect many of these artists have no intention of doing so, and their fans, cut from the same ADD cloth, know this and react accordingly.

    So, why should we old fogeys give a damn?

  3. “In the end, most of these bands will be gone 5 years from now, either by design or as a result of the fickle nature of their increasingly pliable fanbases, which are either bored or—depending on the speed and level of notoriety gained by the artist in question—consumed by the spirit of backlash 6 months into the artists’ arrival on the scene.”

    I think the problem with this is that it seems you’re all limiting the expansion of your collections/artists you like to music that you think will please you in the future, which is a fruitless endeavor. A – it’s impossible to know, B – who cares, if you enjoy it in the moment? Isn’t that really how it should be done — live in the moment and see what travels with you into the future? Just because you like a band for 6 months and then are tired of them doesn’t delegitimize the band or your music fandom. Most things in life are fungible. By setting such a high standard, you guys are keeping yourselves from experiencing anything new that you might enjoy even remotely and by narrowing your willingness to experience to a very, very, very small area, you might as well give up altogether now and prepare for your deaths early.

    Re: Jake’s pondering about music and adolescent culture, I don’t see how new music relates to video games, et al. Enjoying music, enjoying NEW music are not childish exploits in a vacuum. HOW you enjoy them is another matter (do you still have that Vampire Weekend poster hanging in your house, Jake?), but simply sussing out new music? Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

  4. The vast majority of people I work with aren’t interested in new music, but I get the sense music was never a big deal for them to begin with. That’s not to say they didn’t fall in love to (or with) a song, or scan the dial looking for that one band, but I don’t think they ever sat around obsessing over lyrics or making up desert island lists.

    So the universe of people out looking for new stuff, even when they were young, begins relatively small…and then it shrinks. And I’m willing to bet that hasn’t changed since, I dunno, the 50s or 60s? It’s just that now we have the internet, whereas anyone 40 years ago looking for something new either lived in a very big city or was shit out of luck.

  5. I think Kiko and Tom need to start up a “Gen X vs. Gen Y” debate as a touring lecture show (like Timothy Leary vs. G. Gordon Liddy).

    I am intrigued by Tom’s ideas on the ephemeral nature of pop music. It’s as if the Baby Boomers have bogged us down with the idea of “the canon” so much that we can no longer enjoy music in the moment…

  6. I’m gonna go so far as to blame the music industry for this; sure, my own tastes have unfortunately skewed towards what I’ve heard in the past. But for far too long, the music biz has been run by greedy tin-eared moneymen who only want short-term, unrealistic growth by foisting dire shit upon us in the form of vapid cotton-candy pop acts. Rare is it that you hear something like Franz Ferdinand which just grabs you by the throat, and says, “Hey, listen dammit!” It’s great when it happens, but it used to happen more. The music biz has been its own worst enemy, in so many ways.

    But then, maybe for me it is creeping fogeyism, too. Sigh.

  7. Tom, let me clarify: I personally haven’t shut myself off to new music and happen to enjoy the work of a few bands that have popped up during this decade. If, for instance, The Noisettes, or the aforementioned TV on the Radio were to disappear tomorrow, it would not invalidate one bit they joy their music has brought me. There’s been quite a few artists that were only around for a minute that I fell for immediately and will always cherish their music. I like what I like, regardless of chronology, period. What I was trying to get at was, how it feels pointless to stick with a highly-touted artist that at the moment does not give me that “spark”, knowing that the way the music world operates these days, there’s a good chance they won’t be around long enough to develop into something I can possibly enjoy. Especially, now more than ever, when artists are given very little chance to grow and find their footing. That was the point I was trying to make.

    Speaking of artist development, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if, say, U2 were to debut now, that first album had better be War, and not Boy. And if the second one was actually October, well…hello, footnote. Just look at what happened to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Tapes n Tapes, respectively. A sophomore slump and the knives come out from all sides. I’m not saying positive/tolerant opinions aren’t out there, but I’ve yet to hear/read anyone talk about giving those two some breathing room and waiting for the third album. I don’t like this attitude one bit, but it’s just how it is these days.

    As for the redirected passion for music, I see a few friends who are my age digging deep into jazz, world, latin, or some decades-old rock subgenre they have (re) discovered and have decided to explore. They look around, not much that is current appeals to them, and so they quench their thirst for new music with music that’s new to them.

    Jake questioning “if the Baby Boomers have bogged us down with the idea of ‘the canon’ so much that we can no longer enjoy music in the moment…” is a very valid query. Just recently I was mentioning to a fellow Gen-Xer buddy of mine how interesting it was that these teenage relatives and children of friends were digging the old stuff.

    Yeah, that’s cool, but what I’m concerned with is whether those 15 year olds I walked by the other day, getting stoned and listening to Pink Floyd on their parents’ porch, have discovered the music on their own, or were told to listen to it because it’s part of ‘the canon’.


  8. You guys are all nuts. We have ALWAYS had “disposable” music and fly-by-night artists. Anyone here familiar with the term “one hit wonders?”

    Sure, the advent of digital tools makes that field wider and the half-life of novelty acts may be a bit shorter, but the phenomenon of bands that are here today and gone tomorrow is nothing new. It doesn’t mean songs like “Oxford Comma,” “Unbelievable” or “Flying Purple People Eater” are any less fun to hear.

    [old fogey hat on] Way back when I would have killed for an easy way to hear all the bands the NME was hyping for a month. That we have access to whatever we want is a good problem to have.[old fogey hat off]

  9. Yeah, Derek. I get your point about “disposable” music/artists. But that’s not what I’m referring to.

    If someone had told me in the early ’90s that my hometown’s music scene would once again be this big deal, which it hadn’t been since the CBGB days of The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, etc. and that I wouldn’t care for it, I would’ve directed them to Bellevue for some mental competency tests.

    Then came The Strokes, Interpol, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Mooney Suzuki, etc etc etc and all I could muster was a “meh”.

  10. To some of the above points, Lester Bangs writing nearly 30 years ago about a recording from more than 70 years ago:

    on new music:

    “Most records, as we know all too well, aren’t worth the vinyl they’re stamped in.

    Now, the more I listen to this record, the more I’m impressed by two qualities it has in abundance: one is soul, and nobody has to tell you how hard that is to find in anything new being put out these days; the other is that, near as I can tell, this record does not fit into the territory.”

    and on the difference between being an artist and having a career:

    “‘Mr. Bukowski? … would you suggest writing as a career?’

    Just imagine asking Archie Shepp, ‘Would you suggest free jazz as a career?’ Charles Bukowski worked in the Post Office, with unpaid overtime, for 14 straight years. Eventually he got desperate enough that one night he stopped off on the way home and bought a fifth of whiskey, two six-packs of beer and two packs of cigarettes; as he himself put it later, ‘I wanted to be a writer and I was scared.’ That night he got dead drunk and wrote 30 pages. The next night he got dead drunk and wrote 40. Most of what he found on the sofa in the morning, a good deal of which you may be sure he had no memory of composing, was not only usable but good. Literature, even.

    Bukowski wrote a novel called ‘Post Office’ in 21 nights. It has been in print for 10 years and gone through several editions. I’ve read it five times. It’s not one of my favorite works of his. Charles Bukowski does not have a career.”

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