Not too late to listen (Part 1)

I think about music a lot but listen to it infrequently.

When I started fumbling around trying to write songs in my early 20s, I arrived, by avenues still unclear to me, at the conclusion that over-exposure to the great works of others might somehow diminish, dilute or otherwise augment my own ideas about song and thus divert me from honest self-expression. So I consciously and systematically decreased my music consumption in an effort to create some kind of music vacuum, hoping that I could write great songs. This notion was, I now believe, ridiculous. It was tantamount to handing a kid a pen and waiting for great prose but never giving him a book or speaking English.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” as they say, and the exercise of not listening didn’t work very well.

As it turns out, avoiding music is really difficult and sort of a drag. The stuff is everywhere, practically coming at you from every angle, especially if you live in Louisville and are surrounded by audiophiles. Music just materializes from thin air, and sound is really hard to stop once it gets going.

So, just like anyone else who loves music, I heard and was rapturously overwhelmed by great records and, despite my early, naive efforts to keep them out of my ears and brain, I can name 20 songwriters who’ve deeply influenced me and my approach to song. Were it not for my misguided omissions, I could perhaps name a hundred just as easily.

While it may seem like a ridiculous decision to me now, it happened, and it changed the course of my relationship with music as a listener. The listening habits I have or haven’t cultivated as a result of my anti-education are interesting to me nonetheless.

Here’s the big-ass question I sometimes ask myself when I’m not listening to music: What are we doing when we listen to music? What are we getting at? What do we hope to achieve?

We talk about music all the time in our culture. The discussion about the commodity, business, celebrity, importance and power of music is more difficult to avoid than a Rick Astley tape in the used bin at a flea market. Anymore, at least half of the people I see on the street have white wires plugged into their ear canals, and I want to know so badly, what’s going on in there? People are, in a phrase, completely bat-shit crazy about their music. What is it that keeps us listening to recorded sounds, over and over again?

The times that putting on a record or switching on the radio seem most natural and appropriate are, for me at least, when diversion is called for. Driving or cleaning the house are familiar examples. This is a mostly harmless and blameless use of music as a means of shifting a potentially uneventful situation into a moment that fits our fancy. Passive hearing becomes a means of active introspection or mood modification. If you need to focus and engage your heart chakra, put on your favorite Enya CD, wait for soothing instructions like, “Ahhh, shanti shanti shanti,” and scrub that bathtub. If, on the other hand, you need to get amped up to buff another coat of wax on the truck, crank the Slayer, Armor All the dash, then go squall them tarrs around a parking lot somewhere and get it all out. Our listening choices allow us a greater degree of self-determination in the way we perceive the present moment. It’s innocent enough and easily understood.

Beyond just adjusting the present moment to taste, though, there are tightly bundled notions of identity and community that are often packaged into people’s listening choices. The playlist on your iPod, for better or worse, can become the means by which you mark your separation from or inclusion in a given group.

The cost of this self-determined membership in the sound-tribe of your choice is an annual subscription to the Columbia Record Club, and time enough to listen closely and become conversant with other members of the tribe.

There’s more to consider than can possibly fit into this column or a hundred more, but I’d like to continue these considerations in the next installment of Raised Relief. Until then, I’ll keep asking myself what force is moving my hand to turn the radio on and off.