Riffing on Music

I’m old enough to recall the last gasping breaths of cassette tapes. Maybe they were more like, the last creaky attempts to reel the tapes back in? Either way, music on cassettes lay dying as newfangled CD technology struggled to be born. Flash forward about 25 years and my stories of finding new music for myself usually start with “Spotify showed me … ” or “I was listening to a song on YouTube, and … ” The algorithms are probably designed to feel sort of organic, as in, I can trace the branches back to the trunk and the roots of my musical tastes, moving backward from the seemingly random song that’s playing now to the band or artist who was similar to an artist who was similar to my current ear worm. And it shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out that algorithms are designed, intentionally, to mimic a more “natural” flow of information from one person to another. Today I woke up thinking about music, and the ways my consumption of it have changed, and these are my initial responses to the questions I’ve been asking myself. Before I ramble too long about the present, however, I should probably hop into my personal music history.

The first music cassette I ever owned was a Chumbawamba tape that I got for, you guessed it, “Tubthumping.” In a twist made more amusing in retrospect, I don’t think I ever actively listened to another cassette. For a slightly entertaining modification to the pervasive 1990s ear worm, replace every “[alcoholic beverage]” with “whiskey drink.” So the song now goes “He takes a whiskey drink, he drinks a [whiskey drink], he drinks a [whiskey drink], he drinks a [whiskey drink].” It’s all whiskey now. To take this game even further, replace “good times” and “best times” with “whiskey drink”; now the chorus concludes “He sings the songs that remind him of the [whiskey drink], he sings the songs that remind him of the [whiskey drink, whiskey drink].”

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve started singing “Tubthumping” to myself only to get caught up in endless flights of whiskey drinks. This is the way my brain has altered thanks to early internet staples such as FunnyJunk and YTMND, and the glorious DIY era of early YouTube. Lines, limericks, images, everything gets thrown in the blender that is my mind and turned into some weird variation of YouTube-poopified reality. Have I strayed too far from music? Let’s get back to music.

I grew up listening to mainstream radio in the 90s, and thanks to my mom being in tune with the times, I knew the legend of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana; I listened to a lot of Bush, and eventually, my teenage brain looked into Pearl Jam. At some point in this essay I’ll wax poetic about the importance of nuanced, evolving takes on music, musicians, bands, et cetera, but at the time, Pearl Jam was my obsession. I was single-minded about them; I started with Ten and, thanks to one of the first internet forums in which I participated, I learned Pearl Jam’s whole discography and methodically bought each and every CD they’d released to that point (that point being 2003, the year I was a freshman in high school). I seemed destined to get into grunge and long-haired rocker shit. I was a child of the 90s, after all. When I was a pre-teen, I asked my parents for a CD player; I probably should have mentioned this sooner, but the story is flowing from me in the way that it wants to. This CD player could also tune into the radio, so I’d switch from bombarding my ears with Eddie Vedder and company to consuming all the popular crap on the local “alternative” station. While a half-step from mainstream is hardly alternative, radio stations gotta stay afloat somehow, I suppose; I recall hearing a lot of bands on the radio for the first time, from Audioslave to The Killers to Interpol and, to my ever-changing appraisal, Coheed and Cambria.

I listened to the first Audioslave album for a while, usually on the bus ride to school in the morning; my first girlfriend didn’t like Audioslave, and she didn’t like Pearl Jam, but we sorta liked each other and that’s what mattered at the time. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure my brain only has enough attention for things that are right in front of me, and anything beyond the present bubble of time is sorta relegated to the shadow realm of “non-existent to me.” So like, while I should have known that current bands like Audioslave and The Killers would keep releasing new music, I only listened to their first albums and let things sit like that for a long time. To be honest, Hot Fuss has been stuck in my head, off and on, for … almost twenty years? Oh shit. I listened to it a ton, then put it away for a handful of years until one night when I decided to deep-clean my room. And for some reason, the best music for getting into a cleaning mindset was that first Killers’ album. Maybe because by that time, it had become an almost mindless, comfort listen for me. So I sank into its familiar hooks and melodies, sang along when I felt like it, and cleaned the shit out of my room. Antics by Interpol was treated sorta the same in that I was way into it for a short while, like, a whole summer, then I put it away for good. Every now and then the chorus of an early Interpol song will emerge from my mind and my mouth, but for the most part, I don’t listen to them anymore.

Some of you may be wondering “Are you just a music opportunist?” And that’s a valid question. In my teenage years, I think I was; I listened to the radio until one song or another really hit me the right way, then I’d seek out the particular album on which that song lives, and I’d give that album and that band a chance. A lot of that stuff was “one album and done”; for what it’s worth, I heard so much about The Beatles when I was young that when my parents burned one disc of some kinda “Greatest Hits” compilation, I listened to like all 25 of those songs for months and got them stuck in my head. Then I stopped looking into The Beatles. I only needed the bangers; everything else was just so much white noise to me. (Lol, The Beatles and white noise, Elvis stealing black musicians’ sounds and styles, oh god so much music is theft. I’m not an expert on this subject so I’ll stop now.) Anyway, I picked up and abandoned bands and artists all the time. Some stayed: my older stepsister started listening to a bunch of Queen when I was 14 or 15, and I became obsessed with Queen. Then there’s Coheed. Oh god, there’s Coheed.

One weekend I heard a really interesting song on the local “alternative” radio station: it was called “A Favor House Atlantic” by a band named Coheed and Cambria, and according to the DJ, Coheed’s music was based on a comic book written by the lead singer of the band. It was so many cool nerdy things at once: prog rock, writing, a comic book story. I had to hear the whole album. To my chagrin, this album wasn’t Coheed’s first musical creation; it was called In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. 3? THREE?! There are two other albums I need to hear?! I learned fairly fast that there was actually just one other album I needed to hear, The Second Stage Turbine Blade; the first part of the story and thus, the “first” album, hadn’t been completely written yet. “Good writer man,” you may be saying, “are you telling us that you finally went beyond a band’s current discography?” I mean, yes; I used to be obsessed with Pearl Jam, remember? But truly, Coheed and Cambria was probably the second band that made me pay attention to their whole output. To be transparent, I don’t always listen to the lyrics of a song, as in, I’ll pick up the words and sing along and get really into the feeling of a song but I won’t think too much about what the actual words are saying. And well, Coheed is a band that puts a whole fucking narrative into each song. Since each song covers a part of a whole comic book narrative, each song tells a story. My teenage brain wasn’t preoccupied with those details though; my teenage brain was like “Whoa, this dude sings in a high pitch and it sounds awesome!” So when the end of one song goes “Pull the trigger and the nightmare stops” repeatedly, I didn’t stop and go “Damn, that’s dark.” I just kept singing it. To be fair to myself, I grew up with stories of Kurt Cobain and sang a whole lot of “Yeah I swear that I don’t have a gun.” The darker aspects of existence, the sadness that can consume a person, I think I lived with feelings similar to them without actually confronting them.

So for a long time, I just accepted Coheed’s lyrics, and sang them as best as I could, and just kinda loved each song’s vibe. I thought In Keeping Secrets was fucking rad, but Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness came out when I was a senior in high school. This album. Fucking. Shredded. In many ways, I think it was the most proggy of the band’s stuff to that point, and Jesus, it was dark. Darker than pulling the trigger and stopping the nightmare. This album, according to hearsay and eventually the lead singer’s own admission, was his response to a real-life failed romantic relationship. He took that breakup hard. And, as it turns out, the protagonist was based on the lead singer, and the in-comic-book-universe writer of the comic book was based on the lead singer, and the respective women connected to each of these fictional dudes was based on the lead singer’s girlfriend-now-ex, and … the story hardly makes sense through hearsay, but like, he did some fucked up stuff through this album. At the time, I thought that like, the mingling of the real world with the fictional world and the use of fiction as a method to cope with grief was really cool and interesting, so I just accepted that general vibe and didn’t think too hard about the lyrics. Until one day, just a few years ago, when I was driving a co-worker to a public event shortly before COVID kept us all inside.

This co-worker and I did our best to share pieces of our lives with each other, and when we had to drive an hour to a place, then another hour back home, we naturally turned to music to help smooth out the experience. I’m not picky; I’ll give almost any music a chance. One weekend, however, she asked me to play something I enjoyed. Well, Coheed was always ready to return to my brain, and I really liked the mix of storytelling and real-world personal events, so I … played Good Apollo Volume One. And I sang along. And like, the whole album is about the fictional writer planning to kill off his protagonist’s love interest to force himself to get over his breakup, which is the actual writer’s way of coming to terms with the real breakup, and no matter how I try to spin this, this dude is using imagined violence to do away with a woman who gives him trouble. It’s not good. Imagine suffering a breakup and concluding “I just need to kill at least one person to make myself feel better.” I totally understand that it’s fiction, and no real people were physically harmed through the music, but uh … mentally and emotionally, I think it’s all different. The lead singer/actual writer imagined killing a fictional character based heavily on his actual ex. He sang some twisted lyrics that are, according to his explicit admission, inspired by this breakup. A lot of imagined violence against women. And I was singing through that imagination. In a car. With my co-worker.

I don’t know if she felt unsafe, but she definitely told me that she didn’t like the music. So I turned off that album and handed her the aux. Her reaction finally got me thinking: how far should we all read into fiction, especially when the writer himself states that it’s heavily based on real life? Should we be concerned when artists display and/or describe violence that is, at least in part, inspired by real-world pain? I believe that art is a useful response to pain and trauma, but something about Coheed and Cambria cutting so close to the bone is unsettling. I think that the lead singer, Claudio, even spoke out eventually and said that if he could do one thing differently, he would change a lot of that album. I believe it’s due to the speed with which he reacted: they broke up, he was hurt, and he put all that pain directly into the album. It made it violent and dark, darker than their other stuff, and their stuff is pretty dark. A lot of murder and vengeance and bloody conspiracy. But this, this felt more personal. Maybe that’s why it’s unsettling: personal grievances turned into fictional violence feel way too close to real violence.

No matter how I look at that particular album, the follow-up just seemed lackluster in comparison. Which is a shame, given the impetus behind the first volume. It’s possible that my time with Coheed was just done; I listened to the “final” album of the story, and when they finally looped back and wrote the “first” part of the story and released that album, I didn’t even listen to it. I think that this is an organic way to approach music: we figure out what we like about it, we stick with that, and when a song or an album doesn’t hit us right, we either throw it out immediately or we listen until it grows on us. Or we listen a few times to verify that it won’t grow on us, then we abandon it.

People tried to get me to hop back on a few musical trains. A woman I dated for a long time loves The Killers, and she gave me all the albums I’d ignored since Hot Fuss came out. I listened to them a while in preparation for a concert, then stopped listening altogether. I’ll go back to Hot Fuss every now and again, but I sorta leave The Killers alone now. A former friend was even more obsessed with Coheed than I was, and every now and then he’d try to get me to listen to their newer stuff; I’d express polite interest, then put Coheed away for good. Shit, I forgot to even mention the Fall Out Boy times; in high school I loved Fall Out Boy, and that love lasted a good few years. At some point, I stopped listening to them too. I remember, back in the MySpace days, one person’s profile stated something like “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” At the time, it seemed like the epitome of arrogance, and in a way it is, but the general truth remains: some people consume so much information and knowledge that it overflows and leaks out. I feel like my history with music is this way, with me picking up on random bands for a while, then discarding them when I want to experience something else. Details get left behind.

Where once I tried to remember every person who showed me that one band and how many other people I shared that band with, now all I have to do is recall whether I found new stuff through YouTube, Spotify, or maybe an Instagram story. Which incorporates Spotify, usually. The algorithm has come along and replaced human interaction, in many ways. I don’t need to talk with people about the music I like to hear what they have to say or if they have suggestions for my next listen; instead, I listen to someone on Spotify, and the algorithm does all the connecting of dots for me. A few years ago, when the “lo-fi hip-hop beats to study/relax to” joke first started, I actually really enjoyed that playlist. And that playlist connected to a lot of other YouTube playlists that were actually pretty good! I found a bunch of future-funk and synthwave that way. My word, the retrowave playlists are everywhere on YouTube these days. But thanks to YouTube, I found a bunch of electronica-adjacent artists, and now that I have Spotify, I can sink down weird chip-tuney rabbit holes. My ears have never been more curious, or more tired.

Don’t get me wrong, I like talking about music with real people. But with COVID running rampant and everyone staying inside, the algorithm might be the next best thing. I say this as I’m fully aware that all this data is used to figure out what I like, what products to which I’ll respond, and which tactics will convince me to part with my money. Damn it, big tech is too powerful. In a way though, sharing intimate details of how I found such-and-such band and what they mean to me, that’s a lot. Not every stranger wants to hear that shit. Not every person wants to know my musical history. Not many would care. So uh, if you read this whole thing out of curiosity, thank you. It started with an idea, and I didn’t exactly refine it the way I thought I would. It became a rambling exploration of some of my past. We all have different ways of tracing our forming, and this is but one part of my formation. Maybe one day we can all swap stories organically; for now, it’s algorithms and random encounters. To the tune of a great ear worm from the 90s, “He takes a whiskey drink, he drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a whiskey drink; he sings the songs that remind him of the whiskey drink, he sings the songs that remind him of the whiskey drink (whiskey drink).” Happy whiskey drink, everyone.


3 thoughts on “Riffing on Music

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