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Stuck, or Obsession Cessastion

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.


Nik said…
It is tricky to keep the fire going -- I hope you don't go anywhere too soon though!

For myself I keep finding older music I missed out on the first time around (on a huge Devo kick lately for instance) and that helps keep me going, I spent too much time listening to Men At Work and Rockwell back in the 1980s to see all the other stuff I'd missed before... and there's just enough newer acts like LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire to keep me interested, although I'm realizing my days of being "plugged in" to it all are fading fast....
Richard said…
It makes me sad that I'll be reading even less of your writing about music...but I'm happy that your life is satisfying you in ways that make a lot of lyrics less applicable! (I do think it's funny that even as you taper off you're still buying twice as much new music as I am.)
Uncle E said…
I'm with Nik, in that I discover, and enjoy, the older stuff more, the stuff that I missed. Is it a quality issue? Maybe, maybe not, but I don't care much about such things anymore. I was blown away more by discovering Nick Lowe's Jesus Of Cool than the newest Arcade Fire, that's for sure.
Glenn said…
I've struggled with this issue myself, and while I find a lot of what you say (and what was said in YBOM) to be true, I think that we also need to not discount the possibility that societal and cultural factors can create environments of varying artistic merit. Yes, people are basically the same through the years, and yes, every generation thinks their music is the best. However, arguments based on age are fundamentally unfair because there is no way to disprove, "You're too old to understand" and there is a failure to address the artistic questions raised. Of course, we could embrace the idea that music is completely subjective, but this discounts the possibility that there are traits which TEND toward artistic resonance or "greatness." And if there can BE such qualities, then we must accept that music can vary in quality, and is not completely random. Huge, huge issues (which I can't possibly fully address here), but I think my main point is I refuse to completely accept that tastes must totally be defined by age.
NOW! Will you please review The Kinks, Roxy Music, Roy Orbison, The Damned, or Iggy Pop? (And yes, there are some current artists I like too! :) )
Paul V. Allen said…
Glenn, I certainly didn't mean to say that being a certain age precludes enjoyment of new music (or that being young guarantees it, either), just that we lose our ability to become intensely passionate about new sounds the way we did when we were teenagers.

And this goes beyond current trends. A lot of the music I'm passionate about is not actually from my teen years, but I was first introduced to it then, so it holds a special place in my brain.

There may well be inherent markers of quality in music. I can only think of one at the moment: The ability to be listened to over and over (the only other one I thought of was "to evoke an emotional or physical response" but that could be positive or negative).

I actually don't have a problem with all music being defined as subjective; my problem is when critics and fans don't acknowledge that, and present their subjective opinion as fact. That type of thinking leads to blanket dismissals of a certain generation's or a certain genre of music.
Glenn said…
Extremely interesting! I totally agree with you that the music that resonates with us the most doesn't have to be FROM our teen years, but is often the stuff we heard AT THAT TIME. I know for a fact I hated a lot of the "current" music on the radio when I was a teenager, so it certainly makes sense I wouldn't be jumping up and down for every "new" thing that comes over the airwaves in 2010, either.

Well, let me throw out another hypothetical for you - is it that we LOSE the ability to become passionate about "new" music, or is that there are (underneath the trappings of musical trends) only SO MANY things to really be passionate about, and our teen years are the first time we fully "tune in" to those things subconsciously or subliminally?

Perhaps the issue isn't that we can't get passionate about "new things," perhaps the issue is, in a broader sense of music (even music of other cultures), our brains often aren't really hearing or perceiving "NEW" things at all?

Well, just a thought. I obviously have no way of knowing the answer. A fascinating topic!

By the way - please feel free to stop by my blog if/when you get the chance. I've written lots of stuff about music (Reviews, essays on music theory, general ramblings). Some of it is meant to be humorous or entertaining, and some of it is serious. Either way, would be cool if you could stop by and check it out! I think you might dig some of it.

And my "music" is here:

Thanks, and keep up the great work.
Nosila said…
Just turned fifty. Latest obsession: Magnetic Fields and Avett Brothers (the stuff before they went all emo on I and Love and You). The thrill of new music has not gone away. I wondered back then if, like my parents, I would be one of those people who was still playing my high school faves at this age. Somehow, that did not happen.

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