The Importance of the New

It seems like every generation feels that their music is the best. Our music is the most original, the most artful, the most meaningful. All this new stuff is just crap or worse, derivative crap, and all of the older stuff is mostly just oldies. Some people will stretch their veneration a generation or century or more in order to land on their music-of-choice, but the tendency to lay claim to a specific point in history as being the origin of the best music (or art or literature or architecture) is common. And that's a damn shame because we're missing out on other worlds of bests.

I have a simple, obvious theory (one of many) which goes like this—we are most receptive to music during puberty. Music reaches deep down inside and touches something during our teen years that as we get older grows either too small to be touched or too remote to be found. No matter the case, it seems like the music we choose as our music during our teens remains the emotional height to which all other music must strive. But it rarely ever gets there. I'd point to the eternally youthful oldies stations and healthy reissue market where we see people buying then re-buying their favorite music in various formats from LP to tape to CD to SACD to 45rpm LP to HD download to the special anniversary edition as proof. We grow old along with our cherished music and scoff at everything that has come since.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Pablo Picasso (1907)

I know, I know. You are different because your music really is better. Right. The other aspect of the re-buy is the pursuit of better sound quality which goes hand in hand with sedentary listening. If you're listening to music in your car or on the subway, there's really no need to get the better-sounding version. And the sedentary listener is also mostly the aging listener. "But when I was a teenager, we would just sit and listen to music. Kids today don't do that." The notion that we are only serious about music if we sit still and quiet and listen is an audiophile myth. In most non-Western cultures, music is as important if not more important than it is in Western civilizations and it is also typically part of some other activity. Like dancing. Or singing. The day that someone declared all serious music listeners must sit quietly still was the day someone figured out they could make money from this kind of behavior.

The concert hall is a serious place for music, the dance hall a place for kids or the less cultured. Music is serious business that demands our undivided attention. And I agree that sometimes this is the case but not all times. I'm very thankful that our teenage daughters do not spend hours alone planted in a chair listening to music. If they did, I'd start to think something was wrong. Don't get me wrong, they listen to tons of music tons of the time and music is as important to them as it was for me when I was their age. But to expect a teenager to get excited about a fictional soundstage is just wrong-headed.

To get back to my main point, we attach ourselves to the music from our teenage years so strongly, it may as well be in our bones. Which makes opening up to the new, difficult (even when that new is old although older music is always less threatening). There's always that pang of, it's no Jimi Hendrix (to use a personal reference). The thing to keep in mind is art reflects the time in which its made. Popular and unpopular alike, our current music speaks to our current times. The same holds for most forms of art and expression.

Which is why I try to read about and listen to as much new music as I can. My feeling is, and here's another one of those pet theories, we need to fight against nostalgia when choosing what music we listen to to keep our minds and bodies open to the new. Listening to Physical Graffiti is a blast, don't get me wrong, but I don't want to wallow in it. I don't want to regress back into the smoke-filled 1970s and close my eyes and ears to the now, rejecting our newer musical forms of expression as being less meaningful. By doing so, it becomes so even though its not so.

remlab's picture

To me, listening to the same music over and over again is so boring! It's like watching the same movie or tv shows again and again. Or looking at the same paintings over and over again without ever checking out the new exhibits. 

firedog55's picture

Good post.

I think the puberty theory is pretty true. As a teenager and music lover, I remember one of my favorite activities with friends was "sitting" and listening to albums and talking about them. I think there's a big difference between the adult experience of sitting alone listening as an audiophile, and that teenage experience. 

From my observations, younger people still do listen in that social type of way (not alone) and share/enjoy music together. What is different is there seems to be little interest at their age of listening to the best SQ they can afford. I think that's the result of listening on "mobile" equipment and not in a room with a stereo. My friends and I were interested in audio equipment and trying to get the money together for better sound, but of course that had a payoff for us. Today's youngsters probably don't see that as an efficient use of funds due their different listening habits.

On the other hand, mp3's and downloading mean that today's kids have access to music collections many times the size of the LP collection I had in high school and college. 

BTW, re "Are You Experienced": what's your favorite version? I think the 1997 remaster is the best one I've heard. It's very difficult to figure out what to buy with Hendrix, as there are so many versions of everything.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

We bought our daughters Audioengine A2s a few years ago for Christmas and they use them often, even bringing them into the basement for parties. They have commented about how they sound better than the iHome devices their friends have.

I think a big part of getting more people interested in better sound quality is simply letting them hear it.

For Are You Experienced, I like the first tri-color stereo Reprise pressing and the mono UK Track Records. They are very different but I like them both. The stereo and mono versions of Are You Experienced (US & UK) and Axis are being reissued in March by Sony Legacy ;-)

kenmac's picture

"I prefer the mystic clouds of nostalgia to the real thing, to be honest" -- Robert Wyatt

( but thank God for Steven Meijas "best of"lists..)

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Stephen does the heavy lifting!

deckeda's picture

"What new music do you like?"

Last night over dinner I was asked about what I listen to in general, and what I've found lately I like. That's always a loaded question for me because I'll count old music I've never heard before as new music.

I know this is easy for some people, to rattle off half a dozen new discoveries in casual conversation. I have new discoveries bought last year and this, and some that were shared that I haven't got around to spending meaningful time with. With nothing that immediately sprang to mind I instead commented that in some ways it can feel like the Paradox of Choice is in effect for both selecting what to buy and for what from that to mention. Wasn't my best conversational moment.

My wife's tastes and listening habits have never completely matched mine and where they cross I try to curate a few things I think she'll take an interest in. That process can help me as well formulate ideas about what I like and why and neither of us care that it's not new music nor new performances.

For practical reasons, as a teen and right now this instant, I'm that image above, sitting in the sweet spot, listening to records. But I've never really wanted to keep it entirely solitary and serious and typically have a magazine or the Web with me at the time. Having said that, it's rare I'm able to find the time to do "dedicated" listening --- which means limited time to discover music.

Made a friend online and will be carrying some LPs over to his house soon to listen and talk about music. To my regret I haven't found a way to do such a thing since high school.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I enjoy discovering older music that's new to me, too. Oddly (ironically?) my picks for Stereophile's R2D4 have been just that.

monetschemist's picture

Once upon a time, didn't you and some other fine Stereophile folks head over to John DeVore's listening room to listen to music and socialize?  Seems to me I read about that once or twice, a few years back.

I wonder if there's some easy way to do this in our increasingly virtual world, a sort of 'chat room with music".  I guess in a way LastFM is kind'a, sort'a that.  But not really.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Yes - search on "Monkeyhaus" and you should find some articles by a few different people. And John is still having them semi-regularly and they are wonderful events for sharing music, thoughts about music, hi-fi, libations, and good cheer. I've come away from Monkeyhaus with tons of music that's new to me.

garysi's picture

  ..that was then and this is now!  I grew up with Motown and the British invasion, and there is still a time and place to blast "Won't Get Fooled Again" or admire "Bernadette", but there is so many new things to hear too.  I remember seeing Roxy Music opening for Jethro Tull in '71 at MSG.  Never heard of them and they changed my music listening habits that night.  I honestly don't remember Tull at all that night. I followed Eno and learned of composers like Gavin Bryars and Pengun Cafe Orchestra.  These days I read the "hipster" blogs and look at Pitchfork and other sites to find new things. If not for these sites and going to see bands here in NYC, I may never have listened to The National, St Vincent, Grizzly Bear, The Hold Steady and so many more.I tell my children that 95% of pop and rap is garbage, but you need to look for that 5% that becomes the music to influence the future generations like Roxy Music, Velvet Underground, The Replacements, Talking Heads and Public Enemy in the past

deckeda's picture

That isn't the same as "talking loud/ain't saying nothing" (Google initially shows Geto Boys instead of James Brown's which was a new song to me in '91 from Living Colour's Biscuit EP but now I realize I need to go back and get the real deal ... see? This old music thing is never-frickin'-ending.)

Casual yet purposeful get-togethers. OK, that's not putting too much thought into what I want to say about it.

Some people might want a Sunday get-together at a bar and concentrate on an old favorite but going somewhere public to have an essentially private moment strikes me as mostly sad and wholly anti-social. And besides, I bought a stereo system so that I could do that at home when I wanna.

And beside the besides, the above bar example isn't experiencing new music. Perhaps what the music industry needs is to sponsor more new releases at stereo shops like EMI did here recently for the Beatles LPs. Oh ... wait ...

KINGTED's picture

Another well written and insightful article here at Audiostream, thank you.

I can only speak for myself but I buy much more new music now than ever before due to increased income and lowering prices.  But I find myself scouring the amazon monthly $5 albums (I know non-HD sacrilege) hoping Ill find something that makes me feel like the first time I heard Nirvana or Guns N Roses.  Its almost like the proverbial chase of a junkie's first fix, though I cannot personally relate to that actual experience.  But no matter how good new music is, and there is a lot that I find really good, there is something special about those albums I related with in middle school and I am sure I will keep buying them over in new higher quality formats.