2008: The Year Without Music

Reading the Slate end of year round-up regarding pop music, I went into iTunes and discovered that I bought only two albums this past year: Lou Reed’s Berlin and The Black Angels’ Directions to See a Ghost. I didn’t buy any single tracks in iTunes, either, though I did download a handful of freebies from Starbucks.

For a man with a collection of seven hundred CDs, give or take, that’s a startling reduction in the amount of music I’m buying. And it’s not as though I spent this year delving deep into my archives and playing a lot more music from there, either.

Most of my music-playing came via iPod while on airplanes.  And even then, I probably listened to more non-musical podcasts than I listened to music.

So what gives?

In part, it’s a question of resources, I think; in part, it’s a question of what I want from music versus what I used to want from music.

Second part first: when I was younger, music served an important emotional role in my life. I often felt things through music, and enhanced my experience by adding music, to add a desired emotional effect. I don’t do that any more. Perhaps my emotional repertoire is wide enough now that I don’t need to do this, or perhaps I’m settling for less emotional range in my life.

Now when I’m exposed to music, I usually want to expand my experience of the world in other ways. Either to learn about people in ways that other methods just can’t reach, or just to experience new sounds.

But both of those take work. When I read the Slate piece, and I think about Lil Wayne, I’m fascinated. When I’ve gone onto YouTube to check out some of his videos, I’m impressed. But did I buy his album? Nope. Because listening to it would require careful listening — it’s something I’m not primed to understand already, and it’s an encounter with something beyond my comfort zone.  Which is good. It’s what I want music to be.

But here come the resource limitations. Of course, there’s the question of what I’m happy to spend money on these days (not music or computers, but groceries, books, scuba diving, and travel), but the more important resources are time and attention.

You might have noticed I’m not posting here, or elsewhere, as much as I used to. Sad to say, my mental and physical energy is being expended elsewhere. Much of that is on work, keeping me not just employed but professionally engaged at all levels. Some of it’s on other projects: writing and editing on my own, moving, cooking, spending time with Laura. And at the end of the day, I don’t have the time or energy to engage as deeply with the unfamiliar as I require of myself when listening to music.

I could just buy up everything that sounds like what I already like, and use it as sonic wallpaper, but it would be distracting. I have enough sonic wallpaper in my collection that it would be a waste of money to spend more on that.

So instead I don’t listen, and encounter new things in other ways. It’s a loss, but it also seems to be a reasonable response to my limited psychological, emotional, and temporal resources.