I wouldn’t say that I every truly felt “too good” for pop music. As a child who hit musical puberty in the late 80’s to early 90’s, I happily embraced the pop music of that era. I have it in writing that in 8th grade, I considered my favorite band to be Boyz II Men and my favorite song to be “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan. Even as I grew from a lower case c to a Big C, and I began to expand to other genres, I remained pretty firmly grounded in the higher-charting hits of said musical styles. I thought I was quirky and artsy because for a time I considered Radiohead to be my favorite band, but that’s a little bit like bragging about how into black and white art house cinema you are because you love Clerks.
However, as the 90’s wound down and Y2K loomed, my tastes began to change a bit. As the pop radio spectrum began to consist of boy bands, Nu-Metal, rap-rock (the Limp Bizkit kind, not the good kind) and whatever name there is for the rap era that saw the rise of Nelly and Ja Rule, I began to retreat from pop music a bit. I was also getting a little bit older, and I was on the cusp of one of the hardest times my heart had to endure up to that point. I’m talking “heart” in the love sense, of course – although my diet at the time consisted largely of fast food, Little Debbies, and alcohol, the condition of my arteries factored very little into the musical trajectory of my early 20’s. It’s hard to know for sure if I just truly wasn’t into that particular era of hit music, or if I would’ve happily consumed it all if I was 5 years younger, but whatever the case may be, I started to dig a little deeper into the CD racks at the stores around this time. My transition into adulthood, severe heartache, bad pop music, and perhaps most crucially, having disposable income all conspired to send me on a journey into “indie music”.
I put indie music in quotes because I use the term loosely here. Truly independent music isn’t typically on sale at Best Buy, not even back when Best Buy sold more than just the 20 newest and biggest albums out and whatever stray old stuff they still have lying around in $5 bins. By indie music I mostly just mean music that may not get very much radio play. Maybe if you live in a big enough city with slightly more diverse and daring radio stations you might hear it, but it’s probably still drowned out by the bigger hits and if you don’t catch it in the couple of weeks they give it a chance, you’ll probably miss it. The kind of songs that, if you played them for somebody, at best they might say “Oh yeah…that sounds kinda familiar…I think I’ve heard that a couple of times”.
In a time before digital downloads or easily being able to jump online and sample music before you buy it, I had to discover music the “old-fashioned” way – just buy a CD and hope for the best. It’s a little daunting at first and involves a lot of trial and error, but as I got into it it became a bit easier. Especially because I read a lot of music magazines at the time, and the more music you listen to and immerse yourself in, you start to actually be able to make sense of the sometimes esoteric and abstract nature of music journalism and you can tell whether you might dig a new band without even hearing a note simply because of the way a rock critic describes them. And so every Tuesday (the day new albums are typically released) after work I’d head to Rolling Stones, a store just outside of Chicago that is a local non-chain music shop but miraculously has the prices of a big box store – probably one of the key reasons why it still operates today. Some nights I had a few specific releases in mind, but often, I’d just browse until a band name or album title tripped a familiarity wire in my mind and I tried to recall how I know it and whether I remember if I wanted to check it out. If I got out of there with an only double-digit total on my receipt, it was a miracle.
I amassed a sizable chunk of my current CD collection during those days, and much of the so-called indie music that I got into sprung from that: Muse, Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, TV on the Radio (still one of my absolute favorite bands), Nellie McKay, Secret Machines, The Walkmen, Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Giant Drag, The Streets, Bright Eyes, Art Brut, Sufjan Stevens, et al. Now obviously some of those bands are household names now, at least households that don’t exclusively listen to top 40 radio, but at the time they were “unknown” bands, at least to me, whose music I checked out either after only a few teases of a single song being played on the radio, or sometimes, not hearing anything at all before I got into my car and popped the CD in and would drive aimlessly around Chicago and/or the neighboring suburbs listening to my new music, sometimes for several hours, playing the CDs in their uninterrupted entirety.
The above band list isn’t very brag-worthy to anybody who has any TRUE indie music cred, but most of my friends and family wouldn’t be able to name or even hum a single song from 75% of the bands I rattled off, so everything being relative, I was the “music nerd” of my social circle. I say this not to prove myself, as nobody ever questioned how big of a music nerd I was or wasn’t, or cared, really. But obviously something must’ve happened in between listening almost exclusively to the under-the-radar music that I bought and loaded up onto my iPod and hardly ever even flipping over to the radio, and driving around happily letting the radio sit unchanged (and cranked up) as it rolls on from one pop megahit to another, many of which I sing along to. So, what the hell happened to me?
Well, the first thing that happened is I hit rocky financial times. Going on a weekly spending spree for ANYTHING non-essential wasn’t an option for awhile, so the flow of music into my library slowed considerably. And then I learned something about myself: I take art-based risks only when I can afford to, and when I can’t, I make easier, safer choices. So when I did feel like I could treat myself to a CD or two, I didn’t have the guts to try out something untested. Instead, I went for mostly new releases by bands I already knew. Sure, that also included some of those indie bands, but oftentimes, the indie-er a band, the less often they put out new music, so as I waited several years for my favorite small band to put out new music, the Billboard-inhabiting bands that I was into are the ones that got my money more often. Therefore, it became a rare occasion that I’d buy a CD from a completely new band, and when I did, it usually ended up being a new “pop” band who already has a couple of songs on the radio that I like.
The second thing that happened is I got passed that dark era, and therefore I didn’t “need” the comforting embrace of music as much anymore. Not that I transitioned exclusively into bright, bouncy, uncomplicated music, and plenty of sad songs still inhabited my regular listening trends, but it wasn’t JUST the music itself that helped me through that hard time. It was the ritual: going out to search for and buy the music, driving around listening to it, getting lost in it, reading about it, dissecting it, finding more like it. I suddenly didn’t have the time and energy to devote to that anymore, and while a lot of bigger, deeper music fans than me would’ve continued to MAKE the time for it, I chose not to, and I let the buying and listening to of music become a secondary, much more simply pleasure-based hobby, rather than a huge, essential piece of my life. And the biggest change this brought to my preceding years was the research and discovery of new and/or lesser-known music.
Lastly, and maybe most significantly, I just got older. Part of most people’s aging process seems to be an increasingly lower tolerance for new or challenging things, and one of the most prominent ways that that manifests itself is music. It varies slightly from person to person, but there seems to be a point in most people’s life where their “best” era of music exists, and whatever comes after just sounds increasingly annoying and not-as-good as “their” music. In the wise words of Grandpa Simpson: “I used to be with it. And then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me.” There seems to be a bit of split here where people go one of two ways: They don’t like any pop music or ANY music going past a certain era, or they keep consuming newer pop music only but stop trying to seek out anything especially deep or challenging like they may have when they were younger and had the time, ambition, and spending cash to do so. I definitely lean towards the latter, as the hunt for even slightly sub-mainstream music just feels too exhausting to me now. It’s so much easier to just turn on the radio, flip around a bit, and find something I don’t hate – and the more you listen to a song you simply “don’t hate”, the more it becomes a song you “kinda like”, and eventually you just give into the fact that you’re now a legitimate fan of Taylor Swift.
I guess I can just take some comfort in the fact that I’m not so old that current pop music sounds like noise to me by default. Maybe that doesn’t officially happen until your kids get old enough to have their own favorite current bands. Then I’ll have to yell at them to “turn down that racket!”