Some time in the last 6 months I lost all my iTunes ratings. It’s something that seems to happen with tedious regularity. I’ve resigned myself to the quirks of iTunes, and so I’ve been progressively re-rating all 15 GB of my music. The other day I started in on my eighties music. As is so often the case I got waylaid stopping to listen to tunes I hadn’t heard for a while.
Two things happened as I listened. Everyone knows how music evokes memories. It’s one of the charms of music: it’s not just what it is, the aesthetics of it; it’s what it represents. The times of our life get tagged with the music we’re listening to at the same time. It might be just stuff we hear as we take a shower in the morning, but 30 years on it means something different – we recall the shower, and all the interesting things around it.
What it means is that it’s not just the good stuff that gets to us. The music doesn’t have to be subjectively great to mean something. Often mediocre music stirs up memories simply because it ran parallel. Because of this sometimes we respond fondly to music that otherwise we would be indifferent to. Music takes on the inflections of the times. It becomes coloured with the emotions we experienced back in the day – yes, the shower, but we recall the woman we slept with the night before, and the surprising feelings we had for her. It’s a wonderful thing, and no matter the length of time since, somehow always fresh.
This is what happened to me the other day, and no surprises. It’s 30 years ago, but the most innocuous of memories returned to me as if they were yesterday. That’s what was surprising, just how vivid those memories were. I seriously stopped to re-consider the supposed linear nature of time, because it was not as if I was looking back, but rather as if I was peering through the window at something that ran parallel, but in a different thread. Or perhaps, like sitting in one train I looked into the carriage of a train on the track beside, briefly paused, before the two trains set off again in different directions. For a moment though it was as if I could reach out and touch.
The second I realised was how great the music was – and how much better than it is today.
I accept that I’m now one of those stereotypical characters and proclaim how much better it was in ‘my day’. I don’t think that universally. I’m pretty contemporary, even modern, and reckon there’s plenty now that’s better than its ever been. Music is not one of those though. By and large I think contemporary music is crap, especially the stuff you hear on commercial radio stations. It’s lightweight and forgettable. There seem few great bands these days, and great songs come along once every few years now, and not several times in a year as before.
I was thinking about this when contemplating my annual best songs, which I’ll publish in the next few days. I remember the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit sitting on a tram in Dandenong Road (the 64 tram I think). I was stirred by it then and knew straight away that this was a great song.
There were great songs in the early eighties too, more than I remembered. It’s a different sound, more guitar based, and often infectious. Much of the music these days has a dancier beat on an electronic base, or else is a sopping wet, over-cliched ballad. The songs back in the day were better crafted I think, by working bands and by singer-songwriters. They came into being organically, rather than by the production line and music factories of today.
You could accuse me of being sentimental maybe, and clearly I’m going to have an emotional attachment to the music I grew up with. I think the comment is valid, however. Here I am thinking about my best songs of 2013 and I realise that there were perhaps 20 songs back in 1981 I’d rate higher than the best song of 2013. Is it just me?
In any case for an hour or two I listened happily, belatedly realising what a fan I was of the new wave movement. Back then it was just music, and I loved it.