My editor thinks I'm nuts but I listen to music when I'm writing. For one, it's an effective way to drown out the office chatter when I'm on deadline and a steady rhythm can help loosen the word flow.
But feeding some Beach Boys or whatever can also be an effective way to deal with routine of a full-time job. Music has a way of isolating a moment and defining it. I'm heavily addicted to finding new music and when I find something new that stirs my insides just right, it can make my whole day. The computer glow is brighter, the grey panels of my cubicle walls more vivid. I'll be a new man for an hour at least.
So, yeah. Profound, personal change made through some hardcore headphone listening while sitting at my desk while I'm trying to work. It's a concept I've considered before but have never thought much about until last week, during a conversation with Brad Merritt from the band 54-40. I speak to musicians all the time but rarely have I heard any of them say anything compelling. Mostly, they talk about making their new album or their recent European tour and I do my best to hide my envy.
But Merritt is quite a bit wiser. I asked him if he started 54-40 as a way to combat the tedium of his teenage existence in suburban Tsawwassen.* His reply was, in short, "Kinda, sorta." And then he said:
"Music is far less important now than it used to be. If you look at music in the 60s and early 70s, it was a soundtrack for social change on a massive level, affecting millions and millions of people. Then you look at the whole punk rock experience, which rejected some of that and also took everything from social and economic decline in the U.K. to decay in New York City and made something positive of it, now it's...well, I don't know what it is."
I was in interview mode and it's bad form for objective journalists to argue with their subjects. But objective I am not. I am a human being and so, naturally, aggressively subjective in every move I make. And this comment, it...it made me think:
The changes influenced by music have become more internalized, more personal. All music is merely a reflection of how the generation that cultivated it relates to itself and this generation, my generation, has become introverted and fragmented. We build personalized worlds through iPhones, laptops, home-stereos, game consoles. Social interaction is becoming more distant and impersonal through social media. Health movements like yoga are forcing people to look inward to affect change within and, the theory goes, only through fixing the internal world can anyone influence the exterior one.
All of this influences how we relate to art, and music especially. So while Jefferson Airplane and the Clash were inspiring dramatic social change for their generations, Arcade Fire is doing the same for its own, only the change is happening inside. Radiohead, I swear, will stir your insides completely if you let them in. The Beatles too. The Beach Boys. It's endless, I swear, but if we're open to it music may be the only psychotherapy anybody needs.
It's not that black and white, of course. I had read earlier in the day that MTV scored its biggest audience in its 30-year history with the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. This is a significant triumph for modern music, even though the music being represented at that event is heralding the collapse of our cultural intelligence. We've traded "Volunteers" in for "Teenage Dream"; "London Calling" for whatever Bruno Mars is slinging. But this music is defining the lives of the young people it is targeted at. Those of us with more, ahem , sophisticated tastes may observe this musical reality from a safe distance and ruminate on how Katy Perry encapsulates everything that's wrong with the world, but for someone somewhere, she matters.
The Internet has provided more access to music than ever before and so people are more educated about music than ever before. The popularity of the iPhone and the iPod is a strong indicator that more people are listening, enjoying and being affected by music than ever before. The change is still happening, every day; it's just more personalized, more fragmented, because that's what the world looks like right now.
I'm thinking all of this while Merritt is still talking. Then he said, "Music's still important to me. It moves me in every way you can think of and I think that it does for many people but it's not this broad social force that it was."
So yeah, what he said. After I wrapped up the interview, I went back to my headphones and listened to Pet Sounds. The harmonies in "Sloop John B" made me cry a little. Good thing my editor didn't see me though. She would have thought I was nuts.