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The Lost Art of Listening, Part 5: The Case for Nostalgia

Here’s my great confession: If you were to look in my musical library and scroll through the albums, artists, and playlists I’ve curated over the years, it’s likely you would think I’ve listened to really terrible music.

I was recently nominated to participate in the 10 Days of Influential Albums on Facebook. As the game goes, we were to share with “no explanations, no reviews, only covers.” Not one to play by arbitrary rules set on something as silly as social media, I offered brief explanations and reviews—but this was no small feat. As I suspected, this activity was fraught with insecurity while I asked myself why particular albums influenced me. In fact, I even retracted my Day 1 choice around Day 7 because I was so ashamed of my choice. I just couldn’t handle the pressure!

The weight I felt of having to explain the quilt of my musical taste was great—as I’m no musicologist, how is this even possible? What if these albums aren’t considered “cool?” What if others will think of me as a lesser connoisseur of the musical art form? I had seen older generations share their lists: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell.

My ten albums seemed like molehills next to the Denali that were others’ choices. But while they didn’t change the course of musical history, they’re my musical history.

The two most recent blogs in this series, brilliantly written by Jennifer Trafton and Drew Miller, dance around the subject of nostalgia. Jennifer remembers listening to Amy Grant on cassette, hanging onto every word. Drew longs for the days of the iPod click wheel as a listening tool—both remembering when music consumption was new to our understanding of the world and we had begun our romance with it. Through the years, I’ve harbored deep insecurity and embarrassment about the artists and albums I’ve chosen to take up space in my heart, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t change anything about the experiences that led me to these pieces of art. And to think that we have ultimate and complete control over our musical tastes is a fallacy.

Having not grown up in a musical family, the experience I had in musical feasting was tied to the things that heightened my awareness of the world around me. Early on, this meant the tunes in the musicals I was in, or the songs we sang on the playground (for generational context: my first CDs were Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere and the Titanic soundtrack—and buddy, did we sing them on the monkeybars!). Later, my musical taste was informed by things like concerts and sleepovers, mostly done in the confines of an evangelical church setting. The early 2000s was the height of the marriage between small town America’s youth groups and music label marketing departments. We were the street teams for these “major label” musicians, and the employees at the label depended on us at a time when digital consumption was devouring their budgets.

To think that we have ultimate and complete control over our musical tastes is a fallacy. Leslie E. Thompson

Music was integral to our youth group gatherings, but it was a Contemporary Christian radio-fed experience (save the bands we found on fringe stages at music festivals like Underoath, Project 86 and Norma Jean). It was heavily censored, largely uninformed about musical prowess, and riddled with guilt. In fact, each year our youth group did what was called a “Sin Burn.” We were invited to bring items that reminded us of our sin, things that kept us from following God, and publicly burn them in a barrel.

Remember in Arrested Development when George Michael went to a “CD Burning” party? It was exactly that. In his talk the week before, our pastor always reminded us of the kid who brought his entire CD collection, filled with albums by Korn and Limp Bizkit, and tossed it into the flames (I’m sure he went on to say the kid started listening to bands like Skillet and his life became much holier). We were being taught that unless it was approved by our youth group, it was wrong. To hear this message during formative years of artistic discovery and understanding meant we cut off ties to things that may have given us a deeper, richer, more profound understanding of music and its beauty. If we consider the music we listen to as a companion, I was being taught to make friends selectively and with reservation.

Then there was the question of where to obtain the music once we found it. My generation was caught in a windstorm of confusion with newly available digital avenues, both legal and illegal. Those of us who still had dial-up internet were left buying CDs at garage sales or waiting until Christmas when Santa made his rounds. Pepsi bottle caps sometimes provided us with free iTunes downloads, and the occasional iTunes gift card gave us resources to download the songs we had been wanting to put on our iPods—usually radio singles or individual songs we heard from a friend. These restraints did little to support healthy listening habits. Pair this with an early indoctrination of selective music listening, and my skills in collecting great music were stunted.

I sometimes grieve that my parents were too young to participate in the British Invasion, thereby depriving me of hearing stories about the Beatles. Or that they were too disinterested in the bands that seem to have peppered the vintage vinyl collection of the parents who were raising musical geniuses I have come to admire. But this way of thinking is unfair.

My mother kept several brilliant CDs in the car, namely The Best of James Taylor and Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book. Unfortunately, these were in my life at a time when I was being taught to equate music with nothing more than emotional stimulation, and the subtle profundity and maturity of these records were mostly lost on me. But not entirely.

It wasn’t until I started playing at the local coffee shop that I remembered these acoustic guitar-driven albums. So I listened closer and heard James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” You may or may not know that this song provides the perfect backdrop for a particularly poignant moment in the classic movie, Remember the Titans…but I certainly knew. I remembered the emotional depth of the introduction of those words and that melody, and it stuck. Several years later, I dated an older college guy. He listened to writers like Iron and Wine, Damien Rice, and Dennison Whitmer. I would awaken in the morning to lyrics in my Myspace inbox from John Denver, Copeland, and Mae. Emotional connections like these and the “mountaintop experiences” of youth group trips formed a bond between me and those bands/writers which now brings a certain nostalgia and comfort. Revisiting their work is a reminder of simpler days when music listening wasn’t so complicated.

Yes, many of my peers in the music industry would call the bands I listened to “crap.” Many would scoff at the sub-par lyrics, or the simplistic chord progressions. But those were the bands that were at my disposal. They were my friends in moments I felt alone. These artists sat with me virtually as I wept over heartache. Or played in the background as I begged for God to speak to me—oftentimes saying what was needed in that exact moment. They were the bands that inspired me to dream, or to learn how to play a guitar with tiny feeble hands as I went cross eyed from reading the 30-page tab I printed from Ultimate Guitar. As I recall these vulnerable moments in my musical journey, it occurs to me that nostalgia and familiarity are often the real driving forces that develop our musical tastes—perhaps more than anything else. And why should we be embarrassed about that?

I’ve spent most of adulthood intimidated by those who wax poetic about albums that garner critical acclaim, but that I’ve never heard about. Yes, I confess, I was one of the people who tweeted, “Who’s Boney Bear?” when Bon Iver won Best New Artist at the Grammys in 2012. I’ve tried my hardest to be at the forefront of the musical trends. I attempted to retune my ear to DirtyLoops and Snarky Puppy. I gave Lana Del Ray a chance. But after I finished “putting in my time” with these new records over the years, I would always return to my mix CDs filled with Christian pop/punk, emocore, and 90s Christian radio tunes, and a weight would lift off my shoulders as I remembered I didn’t have to try so hard after all.

Musical discovery requires a willingness to have beliefs challenged and expectations dismantled. This is a good thing—it encourages us to be brave when faced with new artistic ideas and perspectives because we may find that we learn to appreciate, love, and even adopt them. However, returning to the music of one’s youth feels like putting on a pair of well-worn shoes. This music fits perfectly in each nook and cranny of our artistic understanding because it’s the exact thing that formed it.

Much of my life has been spent wishing I was someone else, with someone else’s sensibilities and contexts. A person who can name every Beatles record and buys the whole album instead of just the radio single. But, I’m not. And I have to be okay with that.

I can continue to develop my tastes and learn why some things may be more artistically rich than others. But these newfound artists and albums won’t be the ones I’ll play when I seek comfort and understanding from the music that has known me the longest. Much like old friends, my old music knows my doubts, my fears, the things that have haunted me since I first knew how to ask big questions. I’m not ashamed of long-time friends who welcome me with open arms and provide a safe place to land—why should I be ashamed of those artists, musicians, and albums who offer the same?


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