Two years ago, Broken Social Scene's Charles Spearin released The Happiness Project, an experimental album that brought together concepts associated with field recordings, sociology, jazz, and phonetics. If you think that sounds pretentious, you're right. At the same time, every track had at least one moment that left you in awe. Spearin recorded snatches of conversations shared with neighbors, and then matched the cadence and inflection of their speech to instruments like tenor saxophone, harp, and violin. The album was Spearin's way of articulating the idea that we're too busy trying to win discussions or hurrying to get our points across to notice the hidden melodies contained within our voices -- that we are creating music even when that's not our intention.
In his 1966 book The Infinite Variety of Music, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote of the limitless diversity of musical expression we get from 12 simple notes. ("Just think what a situation a novelist would be in," Bernstein said, "if he had only 12 words in his language.") We live in an era where that limitless diversity has become universally accessible -- where in the span of like 45 seconds, I can discover the Japanese artist collective known as Maywa Denki, read about a tadpole-shaped music maker they created named the Otamatone, and then hear an individual use it to play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.'" I can't definitively say my life would be empty had I never heard an Otamatone; at the same time, I can't say my life would be truly full had I limited access to music.
I mention The Happiness Project because it's what recently made me understand that long-term exposure to limitless diversity and universally accessibility and sound clips of Otamatones can be ... well, suffocating. This sort of personal epiphany has been worn threadbare, I know. The fall-out from today's Great Music Deluge includes avid listeners sharing endless tales of how and when they reached the point of drowning.
I won't weary you with the details of mine. (Other than to say that I expected reaching my personal limit to be an instantly identifiable moment -- I certainly didn't believe the realization would come two years later -- and that the culprit would be Ke$ha or Plain White T's or a Glee cover version of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." But I will share my epiphany's conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed The Happiness Project, even though its repeated listen factor is near zero, and it's an album you play in mixed company only if you're prepared to physically fight someone for control of the stereo. What does all that mean? Well, it means I won't be playing The Happiness Project at the next holiday family gathering. Also, it has me wondering if after 12 years of accumulating an enormous digital music library, I've been re-wired to recognize music that's unusual, challenging, and a bit alien-sounding upon first listen as more substantial than music that's immediately catchy, conservative, and constructed with more traditional songwriting techniques.
This re-wiring greatly influenced my downloading and listening habits in 2011. Artists, labels, and genres that once delivered a tickle to the cortex failed to produce similar results. For instance, after adoring the first Fleet Foxes release, I found myself underwhelmed with this year's follow-up and its delicate parroting of Band of Horses --the reluctant, flannelled successors to My Morning Jacket, a group of stylishly dressed men known for their acute Wilco-ness, who themselves sound like they sprung from a particular bridge from a particular song by Grant Lee Buffalo or maybe even the Wallflowers, two artists genuflecting deeply at the altar of Neil Young, who was in turn influenced by Bob Dylan. Of course, all roads probably lead to Dylan, but my point remains. I fancied music that wasn't a reference point or a descendant or a devoted memorial to what preceded it.
This newfound desire left me wondering if keeping tabs on upcoming releases or mass-downloading new songs or noting who is garnering the most headlines on Idolator was no longer a sustainable and rewarding adult experience. I kept returning to an observation from the A.V. Club's Steven Hyden, who wrote that the aforementioned pursuits weren't about staying current as much as staying vital. I'm rapidly on my way to being marginalized; those who craft and market pop music and pop culture don't give a fuck what a 37-year-old married father thinks about Ke$ha. (Now, I could argue that while I may be losing my "edge," I am gaining things like wisdom and perspective, but that's a cop-out I could hear a Boomer mutter. Fuck that.)
When I recently glanced at my 2011 music folder, I expected the scant offerings of a lost year. I was quite surprised to discover I downloaded 3,000 more songs than I did in 2010. Scanning these albums, a general narrative began to take shape. I saw race records from the '20s, deep Tropicalia cuts, pre-war gospel, seemingly ancient field recordings, pre-Eno ambient, and underground '70s soul. Never before had I downloaded so much "new" "old" music. Ardent music listeners are generally a fickle bunch, their tastes often swinging wildly from one moment to the next. My 2011 downloads, however, represented something grander -- a tectonic shift that may influence downloading and listening habits for years to come.
What I overlooked as the year unfolded now became clear: Artists and songs far removed from my time, place, and background help loosen and ultimately release domestic restraints. Life often possesses an almost paralyzing sense of sameness (my wife and I have dubbed it "living our own Groundhog Day"); music from a time period a century old, from a country 1,000 miles away, or from performers light years removed from my own environment provides an escape more potent and unique than music I listen to normally. When I can't get away, this music does the trick.
I'm reminded of a snippet from an article discussing the Numero Group, a Chicago-based label that specializes in reissuing obscure soul and folk: "The whole package is built to include you in a party you likely never got to go to." Well, I can't wait to attend the next one.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.