I was driving to work the other day, listening to my music, and I had a tragic epiphany.
I almost never listen to music anymore. That day, listening to music, as I drove to work, was that sort of exception that underscores the rule.
All my life, I’ve been accustomed to having a “soundtrack” of sorts. Which is to say, I’ve very often had music in the background – especially when I’m alone. And given the circumstances of my life, I’ve certainly spent the majority of it alone, for substantial portions of each day. I’m also capable of a more engaged type of listening – consuming music in focused fashion, as a concert, or just listening carefully to something I’ve decided I like. I think of these as quite different activities – and the types of music I listen to in these two different activities aren’t necessarily identical sets. I never use classical music for background listening, for example. On the other hand, some of the quite banal euro/techno crap I listen to as background music often is startlingly incapable of engaging me. So it’s just a background thing. There’re even whole subgenres that admit that: the various types of “ambient” tracks that can be found. But they work well as background music.
There are also immense fields of music that can be either/or. Mostly these fall into the pop/alt/rap/country genres of yore, though I think my use of those terms might date me, as our culture’s ways of thinking about music and genre has evolved past my comprehension. I have no “playlists” – that’s not how I listen to background music. I have a single folder of “tracks I like” which is a subset of my entire collection, and I have the mp3 player on my phone. And I push the shuffle button and off I go. It can be anything: a k-pop track followed by some weird German dark industrial techno followed by a 70’s disco bit followed by Taylor Swift. Et cetera. If something that comes on the “shuffle” doesn’t match my current mood, I’ll just hit the “next track” button and move on. But what I enjoy hearing one day isn’t what I’ll fixate on the next. And none of this rises to “engaged listening” except on the rarest occasions. Mostly it’s old, familiar stuff that I’ve acquired over the years, where more recent acquisitions tend to be more likely to be what I want to hear.
This was my style of listening even before the advent of mp3 players, to be honest. It was just a bit more laborious to mess with CDs (in the olden days) or cassettes (in the oldener days) or vinyl (in the oldenest days) to get the effect I was so pleased to discover once the “shuffle” button came along. I suppose there was more of a tendency , back then, for the “shuffle” effect to be at the level of albums or mix-tapes than to be at the level of individual tracks. But if I made mix-tapes for myself, I’d certainly work to maximize the randomness of it, from among the music I considered to be my back catalog.
The artists and tracks that have existed for the longest in my catalog are some (but no means all or even most) of the music from my childhood: Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Arlo Guthrie, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are probably the most notable. Then there are a few from a period of exploration in my high school years: mostly Talking Heads, David Bowie, certain individual tracks (but rarely artists’ entire oeuvres) from the pop radio of the era (hence fragments of disco, punk, and such).
I acquired a lot of music in college – as most people do. And some of it remains the most resonant for me. Depeche Mode, The Cure, more Bowie, some early rap (eg NWA), some bits of “club music” of the 80’s.
Some artists in high rotation in that long-ago era have since failed to survive. I remember the Beatles, from my childhood, used to be invited, but at some point I lost interest. I remember thinking highly of Dire Straits at one point, but for the last several decades I can’t stand them. I exiled Aztec Camera for a few decades, but they made a comeback at some point. Tastes change.
There were my years in Latin America (actual and later “de facto” as a graduate student of Spanish, where my day-to-day life was at least 50% in Spanish even though I was living in Philadelphia). That contributed artists such as Cafe Tacuba, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, or Silvio Rodriguez – each as diverse from each other as any are from any North American music. I have tracks of Nuyorican rap, Cuban folk, Mexican punk.
Much later, my time in Korea was a period of a rate of fairly high discovery of new music. That’s because of the invention of the internet, and the existence of streaming radio stations, and the emergence of Youtube and its endless suggestion algorithm. I acquired lots of little bits of k-pop (from my students – naturally) but also quite diverse bits of stuff from all over. German techno and industrial, US alt rock, Röyksopp (Norwegian, I think), strange pop anthems in unlikely languages: Arabic, Georgian, Japanese. Many of these discoveries are actually documented on this blog, which I was maintaining once I’d moved to Korea. I had my “What I’m listening to now” feature, or as I sometimes called it, “Background noise”.
Then I came to Alaska.
It’s not like the internet went away. But circumstances changed. The internet here is still abominably slow. Streaming internet radio or more contemporary streaming apps and services (e.g. Spotify) are out – they don’t seem to have been engineered with the idea of an “offline” mode in mind (e.g. there’s no “download and listen later” option). Youtube suffers the same shortcoming. Sometimes it works.
Really, though, those are just excuses. I still have my mp3 player (nowadays an app on my phone rather than a standalone gadget, as I had in the early 2000’s).
In fact, rather, there’s a quite straightforward reason for the loss of soundtrack. I no longer live alone – I live as a caretaker with my uncle. And he gets up to mischief, sometimes. I can’t be “tuned out” listening to music – not on speakers and certainly not on headphones or earbuds. I need “situational awareness”. This has paid off more than once. Like the time a few years ago when I caught him toting the 32 foot ladder out to the dock, on a windy day, because he’d suddenly decided he needed to “fix” something on the dock arch. That was only possible because of the clatter of the ladder carrying up to the attic where I worked on my computer. Or the time just two days ago late at night when he was stumbling around in the basement (where he likes to sleep) having gotten disoriented (possibly a bit feverish from our recent vaccination). I stay “tuned in” to the sounds in the house. Always.
That means no music at home.
I’m not really able to listen to music at work, either. I mean, when Chad comes in (the new owner), there’s music. I get a pleasant background of Christian Rock and Christian Country. Actually, some of it grows on you – it’s not so bad, especially if you avoid engaged listening and just use it for background music. But I’ve resisted putting on my own soundtrack when Chad’s not around, because I suspect my tastes in music might antagonize the customers (e.g. “What’s this foreign crap doing playing in here?”). So the only time I listen to music is when I’m driving – and only when Arthur’s not riding along, because it would make communicating with him even harder than it is already, with his incipient deafness and cognitive challenges.
Half the time, I don’t bother then. The drive to town is only 25 minutes, and firing up the mp3 player on my phone and linking it to the car’s speakers is just enough of a gumption trap that I don’t do it.
I’d estimate that my music consumption is at about 3-5% of what it was when I lived in Korea. And my rate of new music discovery is even less. Perhaps this is one reason why, impressionistically, I often compare my current lifestyle to life in the military, despite the fact that there’s almost nothing similar about it. My time in the military was the only other time in my life when my music consumption was so low. That palpable absence lends the same “feel” to my day-to-day existence.
Sometimes, I miss it. But I’m not sure how to solve it.
What I’m listening to right now.
THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK