I miss lousy music. Yes, I know, that’s a ridiculous thing to say, it sounds like Dana Carvey’s grumpy old man character from Saturday Night Live (“Everything today is improved … and I DON’T LIKE IT!”). And anyway, lousy music seems an odd thing to miss because, of course, I can get it any time I want. I have more access to lousy music today than anyone ever has in the history of the world. If I wanted to listen to John Tesh or Kenny G, I could do so in about five clicks. Give me seven clicks, I could probably listen to them TOGETHER. I can get lousy music any time I want.
But the truth — and I know this probably doesn’t make much sense, this whole thing probably won’t make much sense — the truth is I can’t get lousy music anytime I want, not really, because lousy music is not something you purposely go out to get. Lousy music is the stuff that just pours into your life, like unexpected rain showers and insects splatting against the windshield and bills you forgot were coming. Or, anyway, lousy music used to pour into our lives. And I miss lousy music.
I thought about this the other day when I was looking for new music to download on iTunes. Every now and again, I will go to iTunes and run through their “Genius* Recommendations.”
*Apple people do tend to throw around that word “Genius” quite a bit, don’t they? Want new music? Here’s our Genius Recommendation. Need help with your Apple device? Well, make an appointment at the Genius Bar. You didn’t make an appointment? Well, we’ll see if you we can sneak you in with one of our Geniuses between scheduled appointments. What exactly would Apple do if, say, Albert Einstein or Copernicus or Mozart went to work there? Would the Apple people come up with a new word to describe them? Would all of Cupertino fly apart in the bright-white light of supergenius imploding into itself?
So I was going through the process, downloading a few songs, when it suddenly occurred to me that I have not heard Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” in quite a while. I should say unequivocally that SFAIR is absolutely NOT the worst song ever recorded. That’s “We Built This City.” And it’s not the second worst (“Broken Wings”) and it’s not even the worst Billy Joel song ever (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”). It’s just a blandly awful song, the sort of song that has made my teeth hurt for many years now. Yes, it did sort of make me want to hit Billy Joel with a bottle of white or a bottle of red (or perhaps a bottle of rose’ instead).* But the feeling usually passed quickly.
*Of course, I am speaking as someone who despises these songs and Billy Joel’s music. If you like these songs and love Billy Joel as you are certainly entitled to do (and many of my friends do), please insert songs you hate into their places. I am not trying to make a musical point here. And I do not believe in pushing my own flawed musical tastes on anyone else.
In any case, though I have despised SFAIR since the first time I heard it, I have still heard it many, many times. Why? I don’t know why. I guess it has played on the radio and I didn’t switch the channel. I heard it walking through a mall. I caught it working out at the gym. I heard it a wedding or two, at a friend’s house, in a restaurant or five, I don’t know all the places I’ve heard it, I just know I’ve heard it many times, and I know the song thoroughly, could probably sing along with most of it, the song is embedded in my brain like some wartime journalist and it ain’t coming out. There have to be a thousand songs in my head that I like even less.
But the point that struck me is that there is almost no chance that I will ever hear SFAIR again (though writing this makes it more likely that I will hear it sometime today). There is no place in my life for lousy music. I don’t listen to radio — I listen to my own iTunes library. I wear headphones most places where there’s music playing overhead. My life is defined more or less the way I define it now. I listen to music I like. All the time.
That’s great, right? Sure it is. And yet … there’s something kind of heartbreaking by it all. Because it isn’t only music. I generally read only what I like too. I do most of my reading online or on the iPad. I used to devour newspapers in whatever city I happened to be in at the time which led to me reading stories that I had no interest in. Hey, look, Penelope Ann Miller turns 40 today! Oh oh, they’re cutting back on money spent for sewers in Tallahassee. Hey, it looks like they’re re-releasing a Brenda Lee collection. Stuff like that. Yes, sometimes, I’d read those stories and pick up an interesting tidbit. Most of the time, though, I’d feel like they were a waste of my time. But I’d read them. And now I don’t. Now, I read what comes through my RSS Feed or what people recommend to me. I read what I like. All the time.
I used to love spending hours in bookstores, walking up and down every aisle, even the computer book aisle, even the calendar aisle, even the cookbook aisle, just in case something jumped out at me. It isn’t like I made impulse buys … the whole POINT was the impulse buy. I would drift around the bookstore, making lap after lap, waiting for the impulse to strike, waiting to learn something about myself.* This wasn’t a particularly effective or terribly practical way to find a book I would actually enjoy. And, much of the time, the books I walked out with were terrible. But sometimes, every now and then, they were life-changing. I remember once, years ago in Cincinnati, walking out of a Barnes & Noble with a book called “High Fidelity.” I’d never heard of the author, a guy named Nick Hornby. Nobody had recommended it. I remember the book wasn’t even particularly noticeable — it wasn’t like they put it on the front shelf or even turned it sideways to give it room to breathe. The book was just kind of jammed in there — no idea how I found it. But I did, and that’s one of my favorite reading experiences because I knew nothing about it and I loved it and so many other impulse buys like that one had been horrible flops.
*Once, I remember, I bought a copy of Plato’s Republic out of the discount bin, not because I had any real expectation of reading it but because it was leaning up against a book about the New Kids on the Block, and, I don’t know, I just couldn’t stand to think that some of the most brilliant ideas in the history of our flawed civilization (even if I didn’t understand them at all) were jammed up against the weepy stories of Joey McIntyre’s teenage years. It cost me $3.95 to liberate Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).”
I don’t walk around bookstores much now. I generally download the books I want, and I download them based on reviews or friends recommendations. I rarely begin a book that turns out to be lousy. And if a book doesn’t capture me now in the first 50 or so pages, it tends to disappear in the “I’ll get back to that” pile (or folder). And, of course, I never do — get back, that is.
I used to watch lousy television too. I know I could watch lousy television now — more options for lousy television than ever before. Heck, I saw that even James Belushi has something new out there. But I don’t. I watched lousy television before because there was nothing else on, because there were five channels to choose from, and after that there were five channels and basic cable (which included 36 new channels, all playing Perry Mason reruns), and lousy television wasn’t just a part of life, lousy television WAS life. I’m not saying this way was better. It wasn’t. I rarely turn on the television without purpose — to watch a game or a show I Tivoed — but when I do I always can find something good, a History Channel feature on World War II, a Biography Channel feature on Al Capone, a Charlie Rose interview with someone, an HBO documentary on someone interesting, an episode of Wipeout where me and my daughters get to watch people crash into giant rubber balls and fall in mud. I don’t ever even watch games I don’t care about, there’s always another better one on. It’s a golden age. And I’ll never have to watch the painful final years of Happy Days again.
So why do I miss the painful final years of Happy Days?
Like I say, it’s hard to explain. I went on iTunes the other day, like I was saying, and I saw that Bruce Springsteen had recommended a song by The National called “Mr. November.” Well, obviously I was going to download that, and even though the song is not about Derek Jeter working through his anger issues and re-signing with the Yankees for $50-plus million, it is a great song with the great refrain:
“I wish that I believed in fate
I wish I didn’t sleep so late
I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”
Anyway, it’s a terrific song, one of my favorite singles in quite a while. So then I went to the Genius Recommendation to find songs like “Mr. November” and it led me to “Swimmers” by Broken Social Scene and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and “Pasadena” by the Broken Skirts and “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo, the name which, of course, comes from a baseball story.*
*The story, which you have no doubt heard, comes from the legendarily bad 1962 Mets. It seems that center fielder Richie Asburn, a great player who in the winter of his career found himself stranded on what is widely regarded as the worst team in National League history, kept colliding with shortstop Elio Chacon. The problem, they soon realized, is that they simply did not understand each other. Chacon was from Venezuela and spoke no English at all. So Ashburn, being an amenable teammate, decided to do something about it. He learned how to say “I got it” in Spanish. That’s “Yo La Tengo.”
And there came the game when a pop-up was dropping into that no-man’s land in short left-center and Chacon went after it and Ashburn went after it. Ashburn screamed out “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” Chacon, hearing the words of his country, backed off. Ashburn contentedly settled under the ball — and an outfielder from Pittsburgh named Frank Thomas plowed right into him.
I’d say I downloaded a dozen or so songs based on Genius Recommendations, and then listened to them in the car. Some of the songs I liked. Some I wasn’t crazy about. And here’s what happened. The songs I wasn’t crazy about were eliminated from the playlist, cast out into the iTunes abyss where they are destined to never even get a second play. I know this is absurd because it always takes me two or three listens to fairly judge whether I like a song (just like it takes me 50 pages to know if I’m reading a good book). But I don’t have time or patience or room for two or three listens in my life anymore. I don’t have time or patience or room for much of anything … except what I have time, patience and room for, if that makes sense.
Of course, people talk about this all the time, about how technology has allowed us to retreat into ourselves. You can — you do — find yourself surrounded by opinions you share, shielded from things you find offensive or uninteresting, living in a world where everything you see or hear or read or touch is, like the prizes at the end of the Newlywed Game, “chosen just for you.”
This is not a bad thing. It’s progress. But in progress, sure, as we gain things maybe we lose things too. Maybe we lose a little bit of our edge because we don’t find our ideas challenged often. Maybe we lose a bit of community because few of us ever seem to be watching or listening to the same thing at the same time. Maybe we grow a little bit angrier, maybe Republican and Democrat, heartland and coasts, country and city, all of us move farther apart, because we never really have to listen to each other, we can instead listen to ourselves and our own thoughts every minute of every day, pumping again and again, an endless echo chamber, until the only possible conclusion we can reach is that we are entirely right.
Maybe we lose the surprises. Some 17 or 18 years ago, I was driving around Athens, Ga. late at night for something or other. And I had the radio on the University of Georgia radio station. They were playing various alternative songs, most of which were dreadful, or anyway I thought so. And then they played this song, and it was a beautiful song, one of those rare songs that I hear once and immediately love. I don’t remember anything about it except how it sounded — there was a woman singer, and piano and guitars going in some sort of fusion, and it was great. I remember the DJ saying the band’s name afterward, and I told myself to remember it. But I didn’t. The music went on, the next song was terrible, so was the next, at least I thought so. I only remember that the band had the name of a month in it. For a while, I thought it was “The 25th of May” but I have since heard the 25th of May and while they have their own virtues, they clearly had not performed the song I had heard.
I have never heard that song again. I know that if I ever did hear it, I would recognize it. Every now and again, I will scan the Internet for bands with names of months in them, but I have not yet found the song, and I don’t expect to ever hear it (Heck, at this point, I’m not even sure the band HAD the name of a month in it, maybe I’m remembering it wrong). And, the strange thing is that I kind of I like that. I might not even like the song if I heard it now … the point was never the song, it was the discovery, it was finding something wonderful in the midst of noise on a backroad in Georgia late one night.
It’s not like that now. Now, I go to iTunes and let the Genius tell me what I’d like. The Genius is often right.