In Which We Talk About Music

It’s funny. I talk music here, and the inevitable result is my hits plummet like a corpse anchored by bowling balls. (Bowling balls make excellent corpse anchors. It’s the three holes. For rope. And knots.)

But music is a part of our lives, right? Maybe? Kinda? Sorta?

Curiously, it’s less a part of my life than it used to be — music is one of those many things that fractured, like cracks in a kicked mirror, and now our music culture is no longer as homogenized as it was before. On the one hand, that’s a great thing, right? Lots of micro-audiences. Lots of niches. A wider variety of music. On the other hand, it also means we don’t have quite as many musical touchstones. In the 80s and 90s, popular songs were popular songs — we all had cultural connection because we knew “Like A Virgin,” or Duran Duran, or Public Enemy, or (insert group, song, musical style here).

We had those few avenues of musical discovery, a real monoculture of music — radio, MTV, and that’s it.

Troubling, but it also felt like a time where music was more a part of our lives. For better or for worse, we were connected by it. The value of that might be dubious — I mean, a lot of the country is connected by watching “Two And A Half Men,” and more power to them, but it’s not exactly like that’s a critical cultural bulwark. Popular media is both a blessing and a curse. It unites us, but it also dominates, shouldering out other — possibly greater — options.

But in the 90s especially, it felt to me like music was going through equal parts “downward slide” and “powerful rebirth.” Felt like the field was so wide — hey! Wu-Tang! Nirvana! Portishead! Die Warzau! Fishbone! Poe! Pearl Jam! Lords of Acid! They Might Be Giants! Nine Inch Nails! Sarah McLachlan! That’s just a tiny sampling of the shit I listened to. The field was obviously way more diverse than that.

Punk. Pop. Country. Ambient. Whatever.

These days, I don’t the same sense of potency, of rebirth, of diversity. It might just be me. The way I listen to music has changed. I listen to music predominantly in the car. Sometimes on the iPhone when I’m walking. Don’t listen to much music when I’m working on the computer, because when I’m on the PC I’m probably writing, and unlike most writers I cannot have music in the background — especially when that music has lyrics. It doesn’t inform my work as much as I want, and instead it simply distracts. I find it much harder to put together cogent, powerful sentences when music is competing for my attention. I can’t just let music be in the background when I write: it muscles forward, tries to get to the front of the line.

(It also feels like I’m not hearing great lyrics like I used to: part of me says, “It’s because great lyrics are harder to find,” but a less cynical part reminds me that it’s probably due to how I listen to music nowadays. An example: Will “The Distant Hindmarches” Hindmarch convinced me to try The Decemberists. And I love ’em. Such great storytelling. But I don’t listen to them that often. In the car, I want “driving music,” not The Crane Wife. But if I don’t listen to them in the car, they don’t get much play, then.)

Now, I may have a minor change in the way I listen to music: I have a new audio receiver for the downstairs at the new house, and we don’t have neighbors smashed against us. I can play music and not fear neighborly retribution. I got an iPhone dock for the receiver and can pop on Pandora or whatever, see where it takes me. So that might help — it might offer me a more robust axis of music and music discovery.

Anyway. Rambling, complete.

Questions, begin.

a) What are you listening to these days? Here’s a quick glimpse of what I’ve got going these days:

The Like.

Band of Skulls.

Kim Lenz and the Jaguars.

b) How do you discover new music? Believe it or not, I don’t discover most of my new music through services like Pandora or Last.FM — I go music blogs and blog aggregators. I use, and I also find great advice from people like Gareth-Michael Skarka, whose Friday Music was always a great route toward music discovery (especially since he seems to dig the same type of music I do).

c) Got any favorite bands? Albums? Styles? Eras? Anything? I’m talking music you keep coming back to again and again. Your own personal fundamentals. Some of my “critical hits” definitely include Poe, Concrete Blonde, Portishead, Nine Inch Nails, They Might Be Giants. Groups that, should they produce anything at all, I’ll buy it sight unseen (or, erm, sound unheard?).

d) Writer-types and artist-faces: do you listen to music while creating? Before? After? How does music inspire? What kind of music inspires?