Often when I am introduced to somebody and the topic of music comes up, they ask, “So, what kind of music do you listen to?” I am never sure how to answer that question, given the wide variety of music that I care about. I don’t want to scare them away with some extended information dump, so in my head I sometimes prioritize what I could share. I think things like, “Well, I do like acoustic pre-war blues from the south, especially when it is not clear what instruments they are playing” (Hello, Washington Phillips!) or, “Well, I like early 90’s indie rock that is melancholy but not mopey” (Hello, Spinanes!). However, that is the not the way to start a conversation with somebody that you have just met, so I tend to end up being kind of vague and say that I like a lot of different kind of things. I know that is not very helpful, since in those situations the whole idea of sharing the types of music you listen to is to look for possible shared interests and connections.
I remember once when I was in second grade having to make small talk with some of my parents’ friends as my parents were getting ready to go out. I only vaguely knew these people, but I guess they had some sense of who I was because they asked me, “So, what have you been reading lately?” I felt a chill run through me. I had been on a comic book jag for a few weeks and so had not picked up any novels or non-fiction texts of note. I don’t remember exactly how I answered – I either gave a fuzzy answer or just told them about the comic books – but to this day I remember their disappointment that lingered in the air. I had blown it, and it was awkward until they and my parents left
Nearly a decade later I had a similar experience, but this time regarding music. I was at a high school party and a friend of mine who I had not seen in some time asked me, “So, what are you listening to now?” He was clearly looking for something substantial, or so it felt to me at the time. I also understood his question implied that whatever I was listening to now was going to be different from what I had been listening to the last time we spoke. I wanted to give him something worthwhile, but I recall giving kind of a lukewarm answer and feeling disappointed in myself. It was not that I wanted to maintain a certain type of cred by name-dropping bands that were part of some musical trend – rather, giving a weak response suggested that I was experiencing some kind of mid-adolescence torpor, or that I was not digging anything in particular to make that now distinct. How could I not have something exciting or interesting to share? What did that say about how I was spending my time? What did that say about what I was experiencing?
That has not happened very often in my life, which is why this incident stands out in my memory. I’m always over-eager to talk about what I am listening to now, and I conscientiously archive my listening experience by generating annual mixes of what was in heavy rotation during the year (I have nearly two decades worth). I do enjoy occasionally listening to old mixes to discover what I was listening to during some moment in time and to see what my reactions to the songs are now. Do I still hear the same things in those songs? If not, can I remember what I heard or is it lost to me? Without fail there is some song that I don’t remember liking that causes me to cringe, “Why did I put this in in the mix? What was I thinking?” On the flipside, I often hear near new things in old songs, and that is rewarding.
What could I have said at that party? What was my now then? A lot of punk rock, some jazz (mostly Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Billie Holiday), and some folk like Phil Ochs (links are to songs of theirs that I listened to a lot while I was in high school). As a teen, punk rock made a lot of sense to me. It was relatively new and I was relatively angry. In The Clash documentary, “Westway to the World,” their bass player Paul Simonon shares an anecdote from his teenage years, prior to starting the band. He talks about going into his brother’s room and finding his brother listening to some record by Yes. The song he heard had incorporated the sounds of bird chirping, and Simonon found the whole thing to be ridiculous. It didn’t speak to the reality of his life in working-class London, didn’t reflect the politics of the time, and seemed disconnected from the sounds he was hearing on the streets (such as the reggae of immigrants from the West Indies). In high school, I would have reacted in a similar way. At the time I thought things like progressive rock, or even most classic rock, were useless and out of date. The speed, stripped down and direct nature of punk’s sound spoke to the end-times feel of the early 80s, and the overt politics fit my need for something that felt meaningful.
But of course, we change over time. While I still don’t want to listen to Yes or progressive rock, and find most classic rock to be pretty boring, one of my favorite records in my collection is a recording of the cowbells on actual cows moving around a meadow in the Alps. The best track is when there is an approaching storm, and increasing agitation of the herd creates an almost gamelan-like sound.
I also really like a record that I have of the sound of the ice on Lake Baikal breaking up
and one of a group of people who climbed inside an empty industrial tank in China and banged on the walls for a half-hour with sticks and other objects. (Click on the track “in” if you go to the page)
As for punk, I don’t listen to it much anymore. Most contemporary punk feels a bit like a pale copy of a copy of a copy. I often don’t hear anything beyond the obvious signifiers, and the genre seems to have long ossified into some rote moves. At times I can hear something in it that moves me, but I often am left cold. Listening to older punk records is a more complicated experience. Sometimes my response feels like nostalgia, which runs counter to the punk ethos that spawned the songs in the first place. For example, although it meant a great deal to me at the time, the Sex Pistols’ LP doesn’t do much for me anymore. When I listen to it I do feel something, I guess, but it seems more like enjoying the memory of a song rather than the song itself. The notable exception to this is “Holidays in the Sun,” which remains one of my favorite songs of all time.
However, some of the music from that era continues to move me. For example, when I listen to “Bikeage” by the Descendents I sing along and still get torn up. It feels so immediate and powerful that the large gap between my current life situation and what the singer is talking about doesn’t register and so I don’t feel as preposterous as I should. Of course, the meaning of some songs can continue to evolve and resonate in new ways. A good example of this is “The Call Up” by the Clash. When I was young, this song more than any other articulated my own rejection of militarism, nationalism and informed my decision to register as a conscientious objector. At one point I used a label maker to cover my bunk-bed frame with the lyrics. More than 30 years later the songs speaks to me about the hopes I have for my children and the concerns I have for the world they are inheriting.
So, if not punk, then what am I listening to now? Although I do still listen to rock (I really dug year’s Hop Along record – Painted Shut), more often I get really excited by discovering a genre or style of music I have never heard before. I enjoy both the rush of the new and finding stuff that sounds like what is going on in my head. When I discover these genres they tend to take over my listening habits for a while.
For example, a few years ago I really got into chicha, a Peruvian music that mixes cumbia with surf organs and guitar – a genius combination. The first band I discovered was Juaneco y Su Combo. Click here for just a song and here for a tv performance of the song, complete with cheesy stage lights and booty-shaking female dancers. The song is sublime, and the video is silly. Juaneco y Su Combo led me other Peruvian bands of their era, and when we visited Lima a few years ago I made sure to find a used record store so I could add more chicha to my collection. Perhaps I will recount that story at a later date.
After that I got into a genre of music called taarab, which is from Zanzibar and that coast of Africa. Taarab is an amazing collision of East African, Middle Eastern and Indian music sensibilities. This first time I heard it was one of those “Where has this music been all my life?” moments. I was transfixed, convinced for a minute that I needed to learn Swahili so I could really fully explore it. That dream passed, but my affection for the music didn’t. When I listen to it I feel simultaneously grounded and fluid. Taarab is a bit harder to come by than chicha, but I found this tape at the great website
“Awesome Tapes from Africa.” You can click here to hear the tape. I don’t like the production on some of the more modern stuff as I feel it loses a great deal of the warmth that comes across in earlier recordings, and the complicated issue of Western music fans fetishizing historical versions of non-Western music is something that I can also pick up at a later date.
Then last year I started exploring Iranian pop music from the 1970’s. A lot of pop music is not particularly interesting (regardless of the country or era), so I have really had to get through some dross to find the types of songs I was looking for. I guess I was once again struck by how these songs mixed a variety of sensibilities. On the top of my list is Googoosh (pictured ).
She went through a number of phases, but her early 70’s stuff is funky and the melodies slink around so smoothly I am drawn in immediately. Two of my favorite songs by her are Hejrat and Age Bemoni. She also has a sad backstory connected to the Iranian Revolution – she didn’t leave and was stuck there for a long time, not able to perform.
I also love this song by Habib – Bi To Man. It is in Persian, so I have no idea what he is singing about, but it tears me up just as much as Bikeage.
Sometimes we know why we start digging a genre, musician or band. Sometimes we only can articulate what attracted us much later, or after the fact. Of course, sometimes can never say. Recently I have been listening to Malaysian pop songs from the 1960’s. Why this stuff now? I don’t know that I have a full explanation other than I heard some things in it that I like in other music. In some ways it reminds of the Nat King Cole stuff on the In the Mood for Love soundtrack, and it also has echoes of this Sumatran music compilation I have (I love the song starting around the 5:25 mark). I was making a pisco sour (another great Peruvian invention) for my mother-in-law the other day and had this on in the kitchen. My older son came in and commented, “Oh, this is perfect music for making cocktails.” I don’t like tiki culture stuff (mostly because of the level of irony), but I understood what he was hearing. How he was hearing that as a 16 year old who has never been near a cocktail party in his life is the wonderful mystery of culture.
As with the Iranian pop, not all of this Malaysian 60’s music is good, but I really like some of it. I don’t know I will listen to it intently for as long as I have chicha and taarab, but I’m not always asking for a long-term thing when I get into a new type of music – sometimes just a casual relationship is fine. At the very least, I know that in a few years when I look back on my 2016 annual mix there is certainly going to be some of this Malaysian music on it. I have no idea what I will think of it then, but I will certainly remember when it was what I was listening to now.
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