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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Listening to the Music of Home: Diddy, Deerhunter, and the Field Mice

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 8:40 AM


The last moment I spent at my childhood home was essentially a re-enactment of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"'s final scene: I smiled regretfully at an empty room, flicked off the lights, and quietly closed the door. Life's weighty moments demand significant gestures on our part. I guess mine aren't so significant; they're just lifted from ones originally performed in sitcoms.

I recently drove past my childhood home. I moved away at 16, returned from Boston when I married, and then left for good at 30. Precious little changed during my two stints there. As a kid, I raked leaves and listened to Kiss. As an adult, I raked leaves and listened to Suede.

When I was 12, I hung out in my bedroom playing a new Casio PT-100 with only one hand, because the videos I watched on this fledgling music television network made it clear there was a growing niche for keyboardists who could play with one hand. The other was needed to point, of course: Point at bandmates, point at the crowd, point to the heavens. A decade later, I set up a seven-piece drum kit in that same room, practiced paradiddles, and gradually came to the conclusion that talent-wise I was closer to John Bonham's coke roadie than John Bonham.

The latter was easy to swallow. Adulthood is filled with such realizations -- though years later and upon deeper inspection, you realize they're more like compromises. You will never master constantly shifting time signatures, but you will possess the ability to change a screeching, sodden infant in less than 45 seconds. Driving by your childhood home is its own sort of compromise. The emotions fall between wistful and unsettling; the overall effect between genuine catharsis and feeling ensnared in a gauzy Lifetime movie.

Then again, how I got there--driving slowly past my old house, leaning across the passenger seat to get a good glimpse, appearing epically creepy--was a bit corny. It was all Diddy's fault.

* * *

Diddy performed "Coming Home" on American Idol a few weeks ago; it's always awkward when pop music machines come together in such a way. The three-paneled backdrop, blue-tinged spotlight, and rigid body movements gave Diddy the appearance of an action figure posing in a playset.

However, what he expresses in "Coming Home" is hardly a pose. Over melodramatic synthesized strings, Diddy frets over what two decades of hasty living has wrought. His legacy is shaky. There are sins that may negatively impact his relationships with his children. It's an intimate confession that feels cosmic, because let's be honest here: Every parent worries about what their kids think of them. But what I really find appealing is how Diddy's anxiety over the past has become a source of empowerment. He's learning from his screw-ups; he's walking the right path. "Home" is a place where he puffs out his chest and holds his head up high.

I was still turning this over in my mind when Deerhunter's airy, '60s romp "Memory Boy" played on my iPod during a morning commute. The song's devotion to "place" and the loss of it is emphatic; Bradford Cox sings, "It's not a house anymore" eight times. I'm enamored with the song's second verse, particularly the lines, "That October / He came over every day." I think it refers to how fleeting childhood friendships can be -- how intense one can become and then how quickly it can burn out. I email my friend Adam, who lives halfway across the world and recently texted me from a Deerhunter show in Sydney. "The middle bit makes me think roommate," he writes. Now I'm imagining the song is about three occupants of the same house. They each lived there at separate times. They are not related; they are connected only by the calamities they experienced there. This sign could hang in the kitchen: Home Crap Home.

A week later, I'm revisiting material from Sarah Records, the label responsible for what is arguably twee pop's signature tune: the fragile yet intense "Emma's House" by the Field Mice . Writer Alistair Fitchett likened hearing the band to "butterflies kissing your eyelids." "Emma's House" is more like being submerged in icy water -- it makes you numb all over. Robert Wratten isn't just lamenting a love that moved to another town, but life's catalogue of missed opportunities. "You have nothing to live up to," he bleats. "You have nothing to live down." He never became acquainted with Emma; he never will. Until he moves away himself (if he ever does), Emma's house will always be there to stare him down and accuse him of cowardice.

I suppose these recent indulgences are proof that I've become enamored with how inescapable the pull of "home" is and how it regularly prompts artists to fully explore concepts associated with it. Or how the wide expanse between an artist's point of origin and where he stands presently -- or even how unsavory that point of origin may be -- is basically inconsequential. Let's face it: Most artists are so far away from the places of their adolescence (spiritually, monetarily, etc.) they may as well be dwelling on another planet. Yet that urgency to go back remains intact and powerful. We need to go back, too. This is why we listen. This is why we drive slowly past old houses. This is why these kinds of pop songs forge the most enduring links between an artist and a listener.

* * *

Last summer, I brought my five-year-old to a weekday gym class. The facility is located a few streets over from my childhood home. We were running early, so I bought us doughnuts. As we ate them out of the bag in the parking lot, I asked him if he'd like to drive by the house I grew up in.

"Is that the blue one?" he responded.

"Yes, that's the one."

He stared out the car window for a bit. Around a mouthful of doughnut, he finally said, "Nah. I already drove by that place with mama."

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