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Why do people stop caring about new music?

After the third repeat of Crowded House’s The Very Best Of over family dinner, I made a solemn promise to myself. If the day ever comes when I lose my passion for discovering new music, it’s time to put me out of my misery.

Why do so many people, even those who profess to be genuine music lovers, seem to stop caring about new or unfamiliar music as they get older? And with so many easily accessible options for discovering music available to us today, is this a trend that’s ever likely to change?

I’m 33. I’ve obsessively sought-out music since I was a primary school aged kid, surfing radio stations for hours on end. Now I have online music magazines, blogs, podcasts, online fan communities, downloads, digital radio, streaming services and the depthless archival rabbit holes of internet music databases and streaming playlists to delve into, and my thirst for uncovering as-yet unheard musical pleasures, both new and old, is more insatiable than ever. But most of my peers, a few of whom I originally bonded with over a shared love of music, don’t seem to have taken to these aural temptations with nearly the same unbridled enthusiasm as me. Why? Well, it’s just, they’re really not that interested.

Losing interest in new music appears to be common to every generation. It seems to start happening around the mid-20s, and by my age, most people seem comfortably resigned to the fact that while other aspects of their lives have moved on in countless ways, their musical preferences remain in a state of suspended animation, firmly attached to the part of their youth where music played a much bigger role in shaping not just their tastes, but often, a large part of their personal identities.

For most people, the formative years of teenage and early adulthood are where music plays its most important role. This is partly because music provides a much needed avenue for young people to connect with a wide range of cultural ideas, finding ones they can relate to and adopting them as a form of their own self-expression.

So, as youthful associations around music as a cultural identifier become less of a concern, the social importance of music gradually starts to fade into the background. We’ve completed the music-as-soul-searching phase in our lives, found what we like and are satisfied with sticking to it. For a lot of people, music eventually becomes almost entirely inseparable from youthful nostalgia. This goes at least some way towards explaining the prevalent attitudes among people 30 and up about today’s music being inferior to the music they enjoyed growing up – regardless of whether they’ve had enough experience outside their own tried and true playlists to back this belief up.

So, are the proliferation of new media platforms for the sharing and sale of music likely to open older audiences up to discovering new music? From what I’ve observed – probably not to a hugely appreciable degree. These avenues are being adopted by older generations to some extent, but for many, they’re simply a more convenient delivery system for accessing the same old stuff rather than experimenting with anything different or new.

It would certainly be unfair to say people who lose interest in new music in their later years aren’t ‘real music lovers’. Its clear musical nostalgia, or even just a great tune at the right moment can invoke an extraordinarily emotional response in people. It’s more likely that actively listening to music plays a different role to a lot of people, one that’s far less intertwined in their day to day lives, and mainly reserved for special occasions.

So what makes older music fans who have a taste for discovery a different breed of music lover? Personally, I think my attitudes come from the views on music I formed in my earlier years. For me, music was more than just the immediate experience of listening, or something tied to a moment or a memory that I’d then be able to relive later through relistening. A vital part of music fandom, for me, has always been about discovery for discovery’s sake. Music to me is an adventure that can be, and has to be, carried on for a lifetime, if we’re even going to begin to scratch the surface of its ability to intrigue and delight and confound and surprise us.

When the Death of an Artist Feels Like Losing a Friend

The recent death of Prince came as a shock to music lovers the world over. Many, many fans and critics have already paid written tribute to Prince and his music, having a far longer history with the artist and a much deeper knowledge of his output than me. I only ever saw Prince live once (and reviewed his performance, here). There are many people more qualified to write eloquent and heartfelt homages to his brilliant legacy than me, so I’ll leave that to them, but needless to say, I was truly saddened by the tragedy of his passing.

Instead, I wanted to reflect on why the death of a musician can have such a profound impact on some of us, despite the fact that that we may have never even met them. Is it natural to react with a genuine sense of grief upon learning of their deaths?

As fans, we form relationships with the artists we cherish and admire. Their music provides us with an avenue to understanding them both as creative beings and as real people.

So many of the musicians I love volunteer their own intensely personal experiences, emotions, fears, loves, longings, failures, philosophies and reflections through song. When they share with us the kind of intimacies that even the closest of friends will sometimes keep from each other, we can’t help forming a sort of personal connection, an empathetic bond beyond mere fandom. And because musical expression, (maybe more so than any other art form), has a fluidity of meaning between artist and audience, the creators of the songs we connect with most deeply help us make sense of our own identities. Their music becomes part of our own self-expression, and provides us with immense joy, sadness, courage, comfort and companionship.

If losing a beloved artist can sometimes feel like losing not just an icon or a hero, but a friend, in a way, it’s because we truly have.

5 Great Rock Documentaries

I recently saw The Punk Singer about Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/Riot Grrl founder and feminist icon Kathleen Hannah. I got thinking about some of my favourite rockumentaries – films that not only serve as fitting tributes to the artists they celebrate, but that are original, well-crafted works of art in their own right.

Here are some of my favourites – a couple of classics and a few less-known gems.

Straight No Chaser (1988)


Famously produced by Clint Eastwood, this seminal documentary portrays bebop heavyweight Theolonius Monk as a brilliant, enigmatic and frequently perplexing persona, equally blessed and cursed by his genius.

While unflinchingly honest interviews with friends, family and fellow musicians paint a comprehensive portrait of the jazz pianist and composer’s life, the most thrilling aspect of Straight No Chaser is the extraordinary wealth of video footage featuring Monk in the 60s and 70s. Not only are there exquisitely filmed, searingly intense sequences of his mesmerising live performances, but remarkable snippets of Monk in the studio, and going about his daily life under the gaze of the public eye, interacting with amusing stand-offishness with fans, the press and numerous hangers-on.

In an era before cameras and video phones followed the every move of stars, Straight No Chaser’s treasure trove of fly-on-the-wall material is rare and fascinating indeed.

The Fearless Freaks (2005)
The Flaming Lips are larger-than-life on stage, but this poignant documentary, directed by friend and confidant Bradley Beesley, presents us with a deeply intimate portrayal of the bunch of young, ragtag suburban upstarts and outcasts who united against working class suburban drudgery to celebrate their weirdness through music.

Their evolution from chaos-worshipping punk rockers to intrepid experimental aural magicians is insightfully explained from both a social and artistic perspective.

Drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drodz was deep in heroin addiction when filming began, and the doco doesn’t shy away from confronting an issue which was threatening to tear the band apart.

Autoluminescent (2011)


Autoluminescent casts a light on the life and legacy of Australian songwriter Rowland S Howard. Best known for his role in The Birthday Party, his strange, savage discordant guitar work was as essential to the band’s sound as Nick Cave’s guttural vocals. Although his pioneering post-punk days left a profound mark on a diverse array of well-known artists, and he continued to write and record for decades after The Birthday Party’s demise, Howard was to remain a relatively obscure underground cult figure.

For many viewers, Autoluminescent succeeded in the difficult challenge of creating a compelling first introduction to the man and his music, while for fans, the depth of the film’s admiration for Howard, flaws, failures and all, is powerfully apparent and immensely touching. The film’s shadowy aesthetic and gothic imagery, intermingled with excerpts from Howard’s unpublished novel, subtly overshadow the entire film, making his creative spirit and enigmatic, introspective persona a pervasive presence in the film.

The interviews with Howard himself make Autoluminscent a rare depository of oral history chronicling a brief, exciting time in the underground music world of the early 1980s, and an even rarer insight into his personal trials and triumphs after those heady, chaotic days.

Howard appears frequently in the film, clearly ill, gaunt and ghostlike but in good spirits. He died of liver cancer in 2009, while the film was still in production.

X: The Unheard Music (1986)


What makes this documentary a vestige of quintessential punk rock awesomeness is how vividly it reflects the time-period in which it was made. Interspersed with footage of the band are snippets from outrageously tacky yet uncomfortably earnest TV commercials, and satirical cartoons that place X firmly in the cynical times of Reagan’s America, a time where both ‘corporate greed’ and ‘corporate rock’ had become part of the cultural lexicon.

The members of X pay homage to their humble beginnings and underground roots, with a film that is also a tribute to some of the lost venues that were integral to the 80s punk scene in LA. Members of the band traipse through abandoned warehouse venues and recall their memories of legendary clubs like The Masque and the Whisky A Go-Go. A playful dynamic between the band members as they goof off during interviews, rehearse and relax is a delight to watch, and there are intriguing grabs of the half-told tales and cryptic musings of Exene Cervenka, one of punk’s most fascinating and influential frontwomen and songwriters.

A movie with a fittingly homemade feel and a message of DYI and defiance that doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, The Unheard Music is one of the punkest punk rock documentaries ever.

Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements (2011)


The other movies I’ve mentioned are noteworthy in that you don’t have to be overly familiar with the subject to have an enjoyable and fulfilling viewing experience. Color Me Obsessed might be the exception.

I was emotionally overwhelmed by this sincere and deeply affectionate tribute to The Replacements through the eyes of their fans. My boyfriend, who finds The Mats mildly likeable at best, fell asleep a quarter of the way through. Still, any way you look at it, this is an utterly unique take on the rockumentary format, not in the least because it doesn’t feature a single appearance from any member of the band, or even a fleeting excerpt of any of their music. Instead, the film relies wholly on the experiences, anecdotes and reflections of fans.

There’s a refreshingly effortless, unforced manner in which the progression of interviews lays bare the most profound, telling and intimate ways people relate to the music they find meaning in. It’s a brave concept that manages not to become mired in gushing sentimentalism.

It all works surprisingly well – if you’re a fan. The ordinary people in this film spoke to straight to my heart, but if you’re not already on the same page, you’ll probably find Color Me Obsessed’s efforts admirable but ultimately tedious.

Your overenthusiasm = other people’s pain. How to be a music snob without being a social liability.

 

Sometimes, without even realising it, I’ll bait my partner into saying something I think is objectionable, in order assert a sense of superiority over him as a music snob.

The scenario generally goes something like this:

Me: (putting on a track which I’ve spent a considerable part of the day picking out)

Some people would say this music is weird and boring

Him: …yeah, it kind of is

Me:
IGNORANT!

Of course, this kind of behaviour is totally shitty and condescending, and if you’re going to be both a music snob and a reasonably tolerable person, it’s the kind of thing you have to continually keep in check.

As music snobs we exist in this highly strung state between smug pride and embattled defensiveness. We feel self-righteous satisfaction in being one of the privileged few to know about Band X, yet we’re constantly taking some kind of personal offense to the fact that the staggering genius of Band X isn’t getting the public recognition it deserves. In this conflicted mind state, some of us have a tendency to make premature, derisive assumptions about others’ tastes or musical knowledge. We’ll sometimes let slip judgmental utterances (for example, responding to someone discussing their musical tastes with a shocked “REALLY?!”) without being immediately aware of how rude or arrogant or scathing we sound.

I don’t think anyone purposely sets out to be a music snob, but for some of us, snobbery is an unavoidable side effect of intense emotional and intellectual attachment to music and lifelong disappointment in the vacuous commercialism that characterises so much of it. It’s fine to embrace your inner snob, but unless you genuinely want to piss people off, it pays to be mindful of how you project it outwardly.
A few things for the slightly guilty music snob to consider:

If someone doesn’t think your enlightened cultural elitism is interesting and cool from the get-go, they never will. Secondly, as a genuine music lover, I want my opinions to be considered and respected. Making statements to undermine everyone else’s viewpoints before they’ve even had a chance to air them is just a shit thing to do, and will get you nowhere. A valuable discussion requires forethought and sensitivity. Thirdly, being a known music snob doesn’t excuse you from being socially inappropriate – it just makes people expect that you’re going to act like an insufferable ass.

Go ahead and advertise your unusual aesthetic leanings to the world by all means, but do your bit for the reputation of music snobs everywhere, and know when to tone it down, or keep it under wraps.

My slight overanalysis of The Replacements reunion tour

 

 

I read that the recently ‘reunited’ Replacements might be added to the bill for 2014’s Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, meaning that their first ever Australian tour could be in the works. My immediate response to this was fuck off, I don’t want to know. Yeah, there’s been a tonne of controversy about the integrity of reunion tours in general, and (probably) the Mats one in particular. Is this really a reunion or is it just two guys from The Replacements and two other guys flogging some old Replacements songs in order to momentarily revive their careers? Their legendary original guitarist, Bob Stinson, has been dead for 18 years, and the two reunited members, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, admitted they didn’t even ask original drummer Chris Mars to rejoin “because we knew the answer… he’d say no”.  Maybe that’s why despite the initial hype, they’ve kept it pretty low key, only making a handful of North American festival appearances so far.

Whenever I get asked what band I’d like to go back in time and see live, I usually say The Replacements, circa 1984. Back then, their live shows were notorious. You never knew if you were going to get a blistering display of raw energy and emotion that’d leave you bruised and battered and your heart smashed to pieces, or be confronted by a bunch of insolent, drunken punks out to (supposedly) sabotage their own chances of success with wilfully bad performances, bizarre antics, on-stage fights or an endless setlist of inappropriate cover songs. At the time, if you caught them on a shitty night, you’d probably walk away feeling pretty jipped, but in retrospect, their defiant unpredictability was a huge part of the Mats personality cult.

The Replacements captured the disaffection, rage, hope, joy and uncertainty of adolescenthood with a potency few other bands have ever matched, and their best songs are still just as achingly compelling as they were back in the day. The band were the essence of youthful rebellion, and the further away they got from youth, and rebellion, the less interesting they became.

Since they’ve been broken up for so long, there’s a pretty specific sort of mystique surrounding the Replacements. They were almost defined by the sheer volatility of their inter-band relationships and always seemed like the semi-legendary 80s band who would absolutely never get back together. It seemed pointless on so many levels.

So who really wants to see if good old Paul and Tommy can perform the songs they wrote 30 years ago with anything even close to the conviction they did back when both the band, and their audience actually lived those songs? Well, I kind of do. The songs are just too damn good to miss the opportunity to experience them collectively with a room full of people who share the same overwhelming, joyous obsession with them that I do. But on the other hand, once I see them live, the dynamic of fandom has changed forever. A little bit of the yearning, romance and mystery that endears them to me is gone. Plus, there’s a good chance that they might suck. But at least in that regard, The Replacements haven’t really changed a bit.

Old school Replacements goodness. Live in ’81

Footnote: There are a few reviews floating around on the Mats reunion shows so far. Most reports suggest a fittingly semi-professional performance, plenty of good humour all round and super pumped up audiences. I think I might be coming around. But if they don’t make it to Australia, I’m still quite not sure if I’ll be disappointed or relieved.

 

Why tribute albums (usually) suck

The rock tribute album is one of those daggy trends in music and marketing that just won’t die, despite the fact that we’ve been bombarded with thousands of truly, offensively awful ones, and the rest are generally pretty average at best.

The idea seems good in theory: a diverse collection of acts come together to perform their versions of songs by a legendary artist or band that has in some way inspired and influenced their sound or identity. The listener gets to indulge in an albums-worth of fawning nostalgia shared between themselves and the contributing artists, while hearing their favourite songs in a refreshing new light. Sounds fun.

So why is it that when I first heard about the new Talk Talk tribute album (entitled The Spirit of Talk Talk, due out in September) my immediate reaction was mild excitement, followed by a bout of uncontrollable shuddering and gagging?

There are an uncountable number of bargain bin tribute albums out there, and most of them fall into the ‘out to make a quick buck’ category. Cheap, nasty and haphazardly flung together by a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of in an unapologetic bid to cash in on the name of the original artist. And then there are your ‘Gregorian Monks Sing The Misfits’ style tribute  albums, which are so devoid of any semblance of taste, dignity or compliance with anti-torture laws that the fact that people actually buy them is irreconcilably disturbing.

But there are plenty of tribute albums that do have artistic merit, and many with genuinely good intentions behind them too. But even these ‘decent’ tribute albums usually end up being kinda disappointing.

Tribute albums are really only of interest to people who are slavish fans of the artist being paid tribute. You already know every song on there and you know exactly how it should sound. The contributing artist isn’t just doing a cover. It’s a tribute. To a band you really fucking love. Living up to your unreasonable fangirl expectations is a tall order.  It’s already a rare thing for a band to play a cover like they own it, but the idea of a tribute raises the bar even higher.

If you hear an artist do a cover song on their own album, it serves as a nod to their influences, something that the listener can appreciate simply as a means of putting elements of that band’s sound in context. But on a tribute album, where every song is a cover song, the listener is much more inclined to draw strongly considered comparisons between the original and the tribute. A tribute version might actually be a really decent cover, but because those niggling comparisons are always there, within the context of a tribute album, it rarely ever feels completely satisfying, when you know you could just go back and listen to the original instead.

Plus, when you’ve got so many artists with varying levels of committment on the one record, it’s pretty difficult to end up with entire album of consistently decent tracks, and the not-so-good ones are far more jarring than they should be, like nasty little surprises that undermine your attempts at unbiased enjoyment.

All that aside though, the biggest problem with tribute albums is that the very idea of them is tainted. There are just so many terrible ones and ones that should have been good but weren’t, that it’s hard to be enthusiastic about the arrival of a new one.

A tribute to the greatest experimental rock band of the late 80s and early 90s

So, I’m not particularly excited by the Talk Talk tribute album, (although anyone who steps up to the plate to appropriate any song from their later albums is pretty damn ballsy in my book) but like any sort of nostalgia driven release, it’ll at least be a reason to go back and rediscover what made the original songs so great. Which I suppose is the utlimate intention of a tribute album in any case. So in one way at least, the rock tribute album does have its place.

Freaky geeky Mountain Goats fans

OK so it seems not absolutely everyone was vibing on the rabid extremism of the crowd at the Mountain Goats show last Sunday night. My friend Emily walked in with no expectations and admitted she was “startled” by the whole affair. It’s gotta be said, the crowd that night were really something else. I really don’t think John Darnielle was exaggerating when he remarked on how “fucking awesome” (ie completely batshit) the crowd were. Yes, a few people in the audience were losing their shit and displaying some fairly confronting physical overreactions to the whole thing, and yes, any sort of fanaticism should be viewed as disturbing on the whole, but seriously, in this era of shockingly lame audiences, dammit, (worried over analysis of the situation aside – they’re probably just normal people?????!), this is what I want to see in a crowd – it was rock ‘n’ roll, it was awesome and at the end of it pretty much everyone walked out of there happy to have been witness to the glorious freakishness of it all. Somewhat bewildered maybe, but still pretty stoked (just ask Emily).