Fighting the Nostalgia Trap
by Dan Watkins
I tend to credit my parents with unintentionally guiding me down my path of music obsession. In the dark, cold days before the internet and Spotify, their record collection was an invaluable resource that fed and educated my musical fixation. Their extensive collection established the basis of my musical palate. For instance, if I’ve ever made your eyes glaze over while talking about Frank Zappa, you can place the blame squarely on my dad. My parents' music library did have one major shortcoming: Aside from a few exceptions, their collection basically ended right around 1980. It turns out this was fairly representative of their taste overall, as they generally have very little to say about music from the 1980s and beyond. By their early 30s, current music had seemingly ceased to be a major concern for them, and most of their everyday listening consisted of music from their youth. In fairness, I can imagine that staying on top of new music trends might become a low priority once you’re busy raising two kids, working full-time jobs, paying a mortgage, and tending to other grown-up responsibilities that are supposedly more important than the new Killdozer album.
I like to pat myself on the back for being much more musically obsessive and omnivorous than my parents ever were. By the end of high school, my own music collection had outgrown theirs, and my tastes branched out into genres and decades that neither of them would have ever had any interest in. However, as I progress through my 30s, I’m starting to find that, well… I’m not as on top of new releases as I used to be, and I don’t even have kids yet!
In 2015, an online study made a case that adults on average stop listening to new music around age 33. Now that I’ve passed that mark, I’m starting to wonder if this is indeed an inevitable product of aging that will require a conscious effort to fight against if I don’t want to turn into my parents. Sure, I have my reliable stable of evergreen artists who I will dutifully buy any new release from (Robert Pollard alone is pretty much guaranteed to sell me at least five albums a year), and I investigate the handful of recommendations that make their way onto my radar throughout the year. Compared to ten years ago though, I’m not nearly as connected to new music as I used to be.
Since it’s fun to blame other things, I wonder if the rise of streaming is part of my problem. When I was really absorbing new releases in college, I would buy a CD and keep it in my car stereo to listen to it on repeat for weeks. Now, with Spotify, I seem to have put an emphasis on quantity. Having access to everything makes me feel like I need to check out everything. Around December of each year, I skim through a bunch of year-end best albums lists and hit up Spotify in a last-minute effort to catch up with what all the cool kids are into. There are probably few worse ways to evaluate new music than to gorge through a pile of albums, pie-eating-contest-style, just to say that I’ve done my part in staying on top of things. Rather than actually investing some time with these albums and getting to know them, I’m just consuming them. Listening to new music this way makes everything sound ephemeral and rarely gives me any desire to return to it.
Meanwhile, my casual listening these days often consists of retreating into the familiar zone of music I’ve been listening to for decades, my own nostalgia vacuum. Here, the transformation into my parents is nearly complete. The simple fact is, like most people in their mid-30s, I just don’t have as much time as I used to for sitting down with an album, reading through the lyrics, and picking the music apart. Most of my listening is the background soundtrack for driving to and from the office and working at my desk, not exactly the most ideal, distraction-free environments for taking in new music. Besides, after a rough day at work, it’s tempting to bathe in the comfort of an album I’ve heard a thousand times rather than challenge myself with something new.
One of the great things about this podcast is that it has helped shake me out of my passive listening rut and gotten me back into actually engaging with music again. I’m becoming more conscious of the idea that exploring new music shouldn’t be a contest to hear as much music as possible. Instead, I should actually invest the time to actually take in what I’m listening to.
Or I could just listen to The Mollusk again. Whatever.