I can’t help but get the feeling that kids today have a different relationship to music than I did in High School. This is NOT going to be a “what’s wrong with kids today?” whine-fest. I despise those. I’m not complaining about the difference, but there is a difference. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. The texture of life is different now than it was back then, so the experiences we had in the ‘80s (or ‘70s, ‘60s, and ‘50s, for that matter) are different from what people are having now. And one of the key places I see it is in music.
When I was growing up, I had a hard time finding people whose musical tastes were in line with mine. I dug The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But more than any of them, I loved Joy Division. And in my late-‘80s affluent suburban high school, there weren’t many Joy Division fans. The few kids that I knew who had similar musical obsessions tended to get irritated by the way in which I expressed my own obsessions, so I parted ways with them.
In order to find music that I enjoyed, I had to travel by bus (as I had no car and no license) to get to a hole-in-the-wall record store downtown that always smelled vaguely bad and was the only place where I was ever hit by a genuine wave of claustrophobia. And I had to deal with the classic record store employees: the know-it-all who drips with condescension as he informs you that he doesn’t have the record you are looking for; the slightly disjointed young man who treats every record as if it were sick child, in need of constant care; and, importantly for me, The Sage who was willing to bestow vinyl on just the right acolyte. It was from The Sage that I first received Joy Division’s Warsaw demo (on a crappy tape, not vinyl), and it changed me. I get hit with an almost unbearable nostalgia every time I hear any of the songs on that recording. They aren’t the best. In fact, it’s not really a great set of songs. But it changed the way I look at music.
And that, more than anything, is what has changed. The Warsaw demo wasn’t that great, but I had been let into someone’s inner circle. I had to hunt and pick, proving to The Sage that I “deserved” the demo. I didn’t know much music, but the music I knew was intensely analyzed, scrutinized, and deconstructed. My musical knowledge was a mile deep, but an inch wide. Young people today display the opposite: knowledge that is an inch deep, but a mile wide. I don’t know which is better. I don’t know if one has to be better than the other, but they are different experiences. Someone who wants the Warsaw demo now can just go to Amazon and order it. It will get to you in a couple of weeks. No need to cultivate a relationship with the guy who smells vaguely like burning rope, no need to get verbally abused by the weasely guy behind a record store counter. Music is available in ways that have eliminated the hunt and the search. All that you need to do now to get access to entire worlds of music you’ve never heard before is know a web address.
My son is fifteen, and for a long time he was not a huge music lover. He has been forced into very catholic tastes, as he used to listen to psych folk with me, punk and early alternative with his step-mother, polka and big band swing with his grandfather, praise music with his grandmother, and country with his mother. He enjoys music when it is on, and has taken to listening to music in order to fall asleep (something I remember doing all the time, but couldn’t do today). I gave him my fully-loaded mp3 player, and he went from listening to whatever was on to having definite tastes overnight. He didn’t need to pick through old record bins, network with weird guys in a downtown hole-in-the-wall shop, or read fanzines. Whole worlds of music (specialized worlds, but worlds nonetheless) were given to him, fully formed.
One day recently, we were driving somewhere, and my son said, “Dad, I like that Brian Eno stuff, but I’d like something a bit more… I don’t know… rockin’, I guess. Any suggestions?”
I wanted to say, “Nope. Find it yourself.” But that was just an old man being spiteful.
“Look for David Bowie’s Low. I think you’ll like it.” It took me years of searching to run into something as perfect as Low. And after years of searching for something like it, I came to treasure it. And now, with my son asking me just the right question, I had become The Sage. But Low probably isn’t going to change his life, the way Warsaw changed mine. He is going to search the Internet for the album, hopefully not download it illegally, and then move on to something else. But, I guess, that is what kids do. And that is, as they say, what it is.
I can’t map my experience onto his: he has to be allowed to have his own experiences and make his own way, particularly with something as intensely personal as music. Technology has changed how we deal with music. The record store is gone, and maybe that is a good thing. People have easy access to things that they never would have had access to before. Just a few minutes ago I heard Trader Horne, a band I hadn’t heard in years. I heard them on Last.fm, and decided to switch over to the Trader Horne station. In rapid succession, I heard Wooden Horse, Fotheringay, Dr. Strangely Strange, and Fresh Maggots. But since discovering these bands (all since the public availability of the Internet), none of them has made the same impact on me that Joy Division did back then. I found them without the hunt. I stumbled onto them, and that made a difference for the worse.
The Internet has allowed everyone to have The Sage and the Contemptuous Know-It-All in our homes. The hunt isn’t as exciting when it can be done at the same time as cooking a Hot Pocket. But I can’t help feeling a little bit of jealousy every time my son says, “So, Dad… Fairport Convention is pretty awesome, huh?” Yes, they are. And you get to grow up listening to them.