February 14, 2011

Crowd-pleasing music (notes from unpaid fieldwork)

Driving without music playing feels so unnatural. Even if it's just to run some errands for 15 minutes worth of driving, I can't leave without picking up a CD or two for the ride. And for whatever reason, I don't like driving with the car windows up all the way -- it just feels weird. Even when it's cold I leave them open a crack. One, it keeps me more in touch with my surroundings, and more importantly, two, I get to annoy people with the music I'm playing.

Ever since the music culture died during the '90s, the average listener bristles at care-free, feel-good music, as well as more introspective or downer music that is more about vulnerability rather than the trend of the '90s and 2000s of mopey or bitter or outraged music. The culture overall has just become a lot more fake, especially in social relations. People are too afraid or too prudish or too something to show how they feel, whether good or bad. Good-times pictures on Facebook show kabuki faces, not real facial expressions, and bad-times pictures on MySpace show this-is-my-hardest-teen-angst poses.

Naturally then, real music is going to rub these people the wrong way, and there's nothing more satisfying than disturbing someone who needs to lighten the fuck up. As a bonus, if you run into the minority who do appreciate real music, you'll put a big smile on their face, like "Oh thank god someone's still playing some good songs around here!"

It only rarely goes as far as me getting some kind of acknowledgment from the people within earshot, but over the past couple years it has happened quite a few times. Everyone has memories of where they were when they heard a song that carved the memory onto their brain. With such a moribund music culture out there, I now get that feeling based on positive "audience" response when I'm out driving around.

Here is a close to complete list of these episodes. I may be overlooking one here or there, but it's hard to forget those fleeting connecting-with-strangers moments. Obviously this method of detecting what music is crowd-pleasing will have plenty of false negatives, where I'm playing something good and everyone likes it but for whatever reason doesn't send an acknowledging look. However, it won't produce false positives -- if a total stranger is willing to exchange a knowing, appreciate look, that's just the tip of the iceberg of fans of the song, who aren't always going to be so forward.

Actually, first it's worth looking at what never gets a response, no matter how often I've played it in however broad a variety of settings. Rock music from the '60s and early '70s never gets a nod or anything from Baby Boomers who grew up on it, let alone people who heard it much later. It's not that it gets sneers or eye-rolls, as if I were to play Eminem or Korn, but I was surprised at how neutral the reactions always are. This includes any of the Velvet Underground albums, Lou Reed's Transformer album, Rubber Soul by The Beatles, compilation albums by The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and The Searchers, and Electric Warrior and The Slider by T. Rex.

The appraisal of the public seems to be that these are good musicians who did pioneering work, but that perhaps a bit more of their fame that is comfortable to admit out loud is due to their laying the ground for better music groups. It's like how you study a little bit of Pollaiuolo in an art history class before you dig deep into Michelangelo. There seems to be a similar appraisal of New Hollywood movies like The Graduate, which were a nice experimental waking up from a slumber, but that still can't compare to the non-stop excitement once the industry began hitting its stride, here as well, during the mid-1970s and lasting through the early 1990s.

Also, none of the original independent rock ("college rock," "college radio," etc.) ever gets acknowledged. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Camper Van Beethoven, The Replacements, The Dead Milkmen, Echo and the Bunnymen, Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail, etc. The audience for that music was mostly college students who thought of themselves as artistic, non-conformist, bla bla bla -- in other words, they used music almost entirely as a tribal or individual marker of their awesome uniqueness, and hardly at all because they liked the music itself. In typical narcissistic fashion, they and their present-day counterparts have thrown their former idols under the bus and have kept moving on to some other new crop of "obscure bands" to signal their non-mainstreaminess. I used to play a good amount of the "post-punk revival" music from the mid-2000s, but that never got any responses either.

Now on to what has played well, with a remark or two about the episode.

- "Round and Round" by Ratt. Pulling out of the parking lot at the local supermarket. A couple that's in their early-mid 30s and dressed in the long black trench coat look of the '90s hears this and smiles genuinely, like this is what they listened to when they were pubescent or slightly before. "Dang, hardass music used to actually sound hardass," I could hear them thinking to themselves.

- "Lucky Star" by Madonna. Leaving the parking lot of a nearby shopping center. A group of two or three couples in their later 30s through mid 40s is crossing in front, when one woman spontaneously breaks into a dance and strut halfway through crossing.

- "Get Into the Groove" by Madonna. Entering the shopping center parking lot. A group of Gen X-ers is sitting around an outside table, and one woman begins to bounce and pump her arms around. However, I couldn't see her eyes since she had sunglasses on, so it was difficult to tell if she was responding in mockery or not.

- "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis & the News. Pulling into a parking space at the shopping center. I must have been blasting this one so loud that the couple in the pickup just to my right heard it through their closed windows. The woman's face lit up like a little girl whose lost teddy bear turns up out of the blue after weeks of fruitless searching. They were in their late 30s or early 40s.

- "Social Disease" by Bon Jovi. Out for a cruise on a 7 or 8-lane drag. A guy driving along my right side has his windows down just like I do, since it's summer. He looks over and, not wanting to get all gushy or anything, looks back ahead but starts bobbing his head back and forth. He was about 40 and Slippery When Wet must have been his cruising-for-chicks soundtrack when he was in high school. (He still had long hair in the back, and about top-of-the-ear length in front, not a mullet.)

- "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House. I don't have this on CD, but when I saw Adventureland in the theater there was a group of five or six people in their later 30s sitting nearby. When this song comes on, it's set against the background of "summer love" and "summer nights," which is laying it on a bit thick. Still, one guy in the group couldn't help himself and started singing along -- not meta-ironically, but like it was streaming over the radio during the final few twilight weeks of the school year.

- "Children of the Damned" by Iron Maiden. Parking almost in front of an indie coffeeshop, where two groups of people are lounging on the outdoor patio. There's a group of two metalheads, about 35 years old, one of whom shrieks out "Children of the daaaaaaaamned!!!" and smiles when I get out of my car. In general, heavy metal fans are the most loyal, so the chances of this happening are high if you happen to find one, although they are small in total numbers.

- Several songs by Michael Jackson, especially from Bad. I don't have clear memories of any specific episodes here because it's pretty common, although the reactions tend not to be so memorable -- non-toothy smiles, a look over the shoulder, that kind of thing.

- "We Belong" by Pat Benatar. Pulling into the supermarket parking lot. Two guys in their mid-late 30s get out of their car about the same time, and one says "We belong to the night!" in a self-conscious vampire kind of voice.

- "The Ballad of Wendell Scott" by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. Here's a slight exception to the "college rock doesn't go well" rule, although it was all construction workers, who certainly never heard the song before. They were just glad to hear some fast-paced, yee-haw getaway music during their lunch break.

- "Heaven is a Place on Earth" by Belinda Carlisle. Slowly prowling around the shopping center parking lot, which is packed. Ahead about 30 feet are two Gen X women, like late 30s, walking with their backs to my car. Once one of them recognizes the song, she doesn't just look over her shoulder but spins her entire upper body around and is too transported to a better place to notice that her eyes are bugging out and her jaw has dropped wide open. Then just as soon as she does so, she regains her composure and they resume their stroll. She very willingly lost her virginity to this song over Christmas vacation, 1987, probably as a junior in high school with an older boyfriend who had come home from college.

Her hair is dark grey, and she's still wearing it in one of those shortish '80s hairdos -- not cropped like Madonna or in a bob, more like Sandy Duncan back then. She and the friend are dressed in contemporary yuppie uniforms, though. Looking at someone who was her age and so wrapped up in furthering her career, you'd never suspect that she was such a wild teenager. But that was back when youthful craziness was nearing its peak in the population, so even people who are by inclination more strait-laced were pulled into the larger youth rebellion.

- "Automatic" by Prince. Leaving a popular nearby park. A group of four gay men in their later 30s are passing in front, and one of them breaks into a kind of a shuffle halfway through the crosswalk. He gets really nervous and self-conscious, though, and tries to continue walking normally.

- "My Best Friend's Girl" by The Cars. Slowing down at a stop sign, and a group of pedestrians on the sidewalk (in their 40s) look over and smile a little bit.

- "Mediate" by INXS. Coming to a stop behind a line of cars at a red light. I'm next to the sidewalk, and two women in their late 30s are walking toward one of the main government buildings -- a courthouse or something -- and are in lawyer chick skirt suits. Being lawyers, they're not as cool as the girl who beamed to Belinda Carlisle, but one of them does turn her head over her shoulder and mixes "Hey, I remember that song!" with "Oh god, it's that song again..." Her high school boyfriend must have played Kick as his make-out music (or at least "Need You Tonight," which comes right before this one), and she grew a little tired of it after awhile.

It's odd that every week '80s night is packed with college kids, yet no young people ever respond to the same music outside the club. It seems like it's more of a goof for a good number of the people there, not something they really like deep down. Michael Jackson is different, of course -- everyone knows and likes his songs -- but overall music is not central to their lives.

And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that they didn't hear those songs when they first came out. Kids my age weren't born when "Bohemian Rhapsody" came out, but we heard it from the Wayne's World movie and loved it right away. Anyone who was in fifth grade when that movie came out still holds that as one of their "don't let it end" songs from their childhood, before everything started changing in middle school.

Unfortunately the most positive reactions have been from people who were at least a good five or tens years older than me, which doesn't bode well for finding people to relate to musically even within my age group. Most of your core musical tastes are in place by around 20, so in order to avoid taking indie / alternative / emo seriously (or nu metal, gangsta rap, etc.), you had to have been born before 1975 or so. Born from 1976 through 1985, you might have heard good music on the radio when you were a child, but it probably didn't play much of a role in your adolescence, when music matters much more. Born after 1985, there's nothing good left to hear even in childhood, let alone as a teenager.

Returning to the lack of response from older Baby Boomers, they were adolescents when rock music was still maturing, so they have a decent ear for it but let the peak stage pass them by as they entered their later 20s and 30s. If you were 20 during the mid-'70s when it really gets going, though, rock music of any kind still resonates really well with you. So people born between, roughly, 1955 and 1975 know the score and appreciate just about anything worth appreciating. They're the ones you want to talk to about music. Hopefully some of them are writing things down, since they're the only group that really knows anything. It would be a shame for them to enter their forgetful years in a few decades without having recorded what it was all about for posterity.


  1. "Round and Round" as "hardass"? I'm with Mustaine: toss a lighter in their hair and watch those dandies combust. A lot of hardcore music has become unlistenable trying to sound too hardass, but I think the Slumlords do a good job of trying to bridge the gap between that style and the old Oi sound.

    I'm one of those folks born after 85, which I suppose means I'm lost to good music. And indeed most of the music I like (including 90s music) wasn't new at the time I first heard it.

  2. Driving without music playing feels so unnatural.

    You should try to appreciate the pleasure of driving in silence. Playing music in excess acts as filler to keep thoughts away.

    I get to annoy people with the music I'm playing.

    I hope you at least don't thump the bass.


    One song to add to your list: Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl." The music video is fun too.


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