You may have noticed that things have slowed down around here. I had the summer off from teaching, and I spent it with my 7 month-old son. I gave myself permission to make this blog less of a priority. Well, "less of a priority" is putting it lightly. Initially, I considered an abrupt retirement. But then I reconsidered. Maybe the proximity to Brett Favre is causing this.
If you're a long time reader, this is probably not all that surprising to you. Since 2007, it has become an annual ritual for me to soul-search about my waning interest in music. First I blamed an inability to express myself and a lack of quality music. Then in 2008 I cited new technology and the death of the album. Last year I wrote about how my changing life priorities hindered my ability to seek out new music.
I've done a lot of thinking about it this summer and in truth I believe this was all just dancing around the issue, a slow realization of something I didn't want to admit to myself: My music obsession has gone away.
Sure, I still have an interest in music - I imagine I always will - but that interest is clearly not at the very intense level it once was. The old stuff still thrills, but in the last four years, new CDs/songs have rarely moved me in the way I'm used to. I thought for awhile this was just a funk, a phase. But four years of something is a pattern, not an exception.
So what happened? Was it really all of those factors I laid blame upon? Well, yes. But they can be enveloped into a larger, more theoretical, explanation.
That explanation starts in Daniel Levitin's book This Is Your Brain on Music. Levitin is both a scientist and a musician, and his book looks at the latter through the lens of the former. It's a bit of a dry and dense read if, like me, you are neither a scientist or musician, but it does contain several enlightening bits of information. The part I'm concerned with is as follows:
Through research, Levitin and others have found that music has a profound affect on the amygdala, the part of the brain that that processes memory and emotional reactions. In adolescence, an emotionally-raw time, the brain is busy making crazy amounts of connections. So it follows that music first experienced during adolescence is especially fondly-remembered. In fact, a study of advanced Alzheimer's patients found that they could still remember songs from when they were fourteen.
Since our neural circuits slow down after our teenage years, so do our connections. And this leads Levitin to make the following statement: "There doesn't seem to be a cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music, but most people have formed their tastes by the age of 18 or 20."
I've known this anecdotally for years. We all know people whose musical tastes seem irrevocably stuck in a certain era, our parents, our grandparents, guys at the fair wearing Ratt t-shirts. I used to think this was because these people had simply stopped trying, that they wrote off new music as the fancy of youth. Often this "state of stuck" is accompanied by a disdain of the new and popular. Rather than just admit they're out of touch, these old fogeys dismiss the new sounds as having less artistic merit than their most beloved songs. We've seen this play out consistently in every new generation and sub-generation: Jazz isn't real music, rock and roll isn't real music, disco isn't real music, punk isn't real music, new wave isn't real music, hip hop isn't real music, etc. And consistently we've seen that the latest tunes that are driving the kids wild mean/will mean just as much to them as the music of our youth meant/means to us. The songs on the top 40 will eventually be the songs on the classic rock and oldies stations.
I once thought that being aware of this would be enough to help me avoid becoming stuck in my tastes. I thought I could be an exception out of sheer willpower. I thought that because music meant so much to me, I wouldn't fall in the trap. And it did work, at least a little bit. I had a longer golden age than many, with it lasting well into my 20s. But now that my golden age has ended, I'm more inclined to believe in a biological explanation.
Obviously we're still able to make emotional connections beyond our teenage years. We fall in love, we have children, etc. Likewise, certain bands and songs do still find their way to my heart, and I'm sure they'll continue to do so. But I'm ready to accept that new songs are unlikely to give me that overwhelming rush of memory and emotion that I get from the best songs of my golden age. And lately I've that the new artists and songs I like best are ones that remind me of older artists I like. I'm now convinced this is how rock critics keep up their careers going. They write about how established artists just aren't as good as they used to be or about how this new band sounds a lot like this old band.
I'll pause to let that marinate a little bit.
There are other, smaller, possibly dismissable factors in my music quagmire. First is the Hornby Effect, which says, basically, that once I became romantically happy (I met my wife in 2006), my ability to truly identify with music (the best of which is about romantic discord) was lost. Or a more recent thought centers on how analysis of a work of art can intensify our appreciation of it, but at the same time distance us emotionally from it. It's destruction by deconstruction. Too often since I started this blog I've approached an album already starting to write a review of it in my head, rather than experiencing the music viscerally in the moment.
You'll notice the key in all three explanations is the emotion and personal connection. When I started 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds it was to share my personal relationship with music through writing. When I read back over old reviews, the ones I like the best are the ones where I opened myself up, where that personal relationship is clearly a part of the review.
I feel like I've moved away from that in recent years, at least when it comes to writing about new music. I don't tend to feel a strong connection to a lot of new music, so I don't tend to write about it. So I've dealt with this in sneaky ways. I focused on back catalogs of beloved artists (The Beatles, The Monkees, "Weird Al", XTC). And I moved toward analytical, research-based entries (the Rock Bottom and Rock Solid series) that required no personal connection at all.
And I've had fun with those, but I don't feel I can continue on that path indefinitely. Writing about music was always meant to be a reflection and manifestation of my obsession. Using writing to keep the obsession on life support, as I have in recent years, is not something I'm very interested in.
So does this mean the end of 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds? Maybe, but not quite yet. I've still got more work to do. I have 11 more Rock Solids to write, 2 more XTC album reviews, and a new feature called Versus, for which I have 5 ideas). At my current pace, that's enough to keep me going well into 2011. But from there? I don't know what that future holds.
But I know this: Obsessions are cyclical. I was an avid comic book collector from age 12 to 22 (though the last four years I basically did it out of habit; do you see a pattern?). I unceremoniously stopped collecting in 2000, only to start up again 5 years later. Now I'm back in the thick of it, visiting the comic shop every week to keep up with the adventures of the Flash and Fantastic Four.
So mark your calendars for 2015, I guess.