Me Against The Music?

About a month ago, Pink Floyd won a lawsuit against the record company EMI, deciding that the group’s songs could no longer be sold as individual tracks; from now on, they shall not be sold separate from the albums they appear on. The case seem clear enough, since the group actually had a clause in their record contract detailing exactly that. And as someone who owns a handful of Pink Floyd albums and have listened to them off and on since I was 12, I can certainly appreciate that some of them – most notably The Wall, but also Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon – are albums with their own narrative structure and internal logic. They were never intended to being consumed in any other form or order. It would simply diminish them as albums.

But at the same time, the lawsuit seems like a drawback to an earlier era, when our patterns of music comsumption were more fixed than they are now. The Norwegian newsweekly that brought me the news interviewed a range of musicians who, while appearing to understand the artistic impulse behind Pink Floyd’s protectiveness of their legacy, championed a different approach to music consumption than what was once dominant. One respondent talked about how much of his sympathy for Pink Floyd’s argument for the primacy of the album evaporated when he thought about how his carefully put together playlist was just as powerful in bringing back memories as any particular album had been. Another respondent stole my nostalgic heart by comparing the decision with having to tell himself as a music obsessed 10 year old in 1993 that he couldn’t listen to Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train without first having to buy Grave Dancers’ Union, the album on which it was a single. It’s not just that I love the power-to-the-people populism of his argument – making it less about artistic freedom and more about being grateful for your fans, whatever way may want to express their fandom; it hits close because that kid could just as easily have been me. I’m a couple of years younger than the musician who told the story, but I too sat glued to MTV in anticipation of Runaway Train, or Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There, or 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up. If someone had taken that away from me, they would have provoked a one-man riot.

I mention all this to prepare you for my great friend Bryan Borland’s recent poem Top 40. It’s about how we need and use music to express our innermost feelings, but more than anything it’s a meditation on how music consumption has changed in an era of digital music libraries and instant access. When Bryan invites you on a trip down memory lane, you’d better tag along.   So, let’s take a look*:

In the days before iTunes,
I courted every song released

as a single. Cassettes were $1.99
with the radio hit

and a throwaway B-side
that saw less play than my high school girlfriend.

I made Billboard lists ranking lips
to ass, my crushes paired with albums, my own

Hot 100. These are things
you need to know, children:

that all the music in the world
wasn’t available with a point and click,

that the relationships we cultivated
with our idols lasted longer

than a television season. That we made love
and gods of our rock stars

who knew what we needed to hear,
what we needed to say

to the boy next door who we imagined
watched as we replaced our tongue-tied muzzles

with the confidence
of a hairbrush microphone.

One of the things I love about this poem, is that its unabashed nostalgia makes music feel important again. It’s like that early scene in Almost Famous, in which a young William Miller discovers all the classic albums that his sister has left for him. I loved everything about that movie and its portrayal of the rock myths of the 70’s, but I loved nothing more than that particular scene, because it took music down to a personal level; you could immediately sense how this gesture of a loving sister-brother relationship lit up something in William, whether it was gratitude or rebellion. Not only had William found his calling, he had found a way to express it through others. To acknowledge that other people can express your feelings just as well as you can is an important part of growing up, and nothing is better at it than music.

When I first read it, I thought such thoughts would be off limits; that I would be able to engage with what it said about music consumption more or less separately from what it says about how we use music as self-expression. But I soon realized that that’s impossible. It’s simply too tempting a parallel. But because I thought I could separate these things, I also think I read it a little too narrowly. It’s a poem about all the work that went into being obsessed with music before the iTunes-fueled instant availability, but the way I read it and the lively discussion in the comments section, this has less to do with the broader availability itself, than with wanting to remember the days when making a mixtape actually took some effort and a personal touch. As I remember it, only people who really loved music – no matter it was the flavor of the month or something your parents had from your parents’ collection – made mixtapes. I sort of imagine them as younger versions of Nick Hornby’s perennially mixtaping protagonist Rob Fleming from High Fidelity.

I would have been perfectly satisfied if I could read this poem as simply a romantic memory of what it meant to be into music in a different age than ours, but as anyone who has only passing familiarity with Bryan’s work can attest to, there tends to be more to them than you think initially. When he says, in a perhaps sarcastic nod to the indistinguishable nature of today’s dominant pop acts, that “the relationships we cultivated with our idols lasted longer than a television season”, this is not about a wish to feel superior to later generations; it’s a comment on music consumption itself. It was because, for most of us, it had to. In my childhood you didn’t have the chance to go download or stream whatever song was stuck in your head at the moment, and unless your parents were rich, you couldn’t just buy all the music you wanted. I think that’s Bryan’s point. When we clicked with an artist or a record, we often had to stick to that until we tired of it, or until we got a chance to buy another one. That, or we could turn on the radio and hope that the played the song we most wanted to hear, so that we could tape it. Heck, in the early 1990s, you could even see me holding my little stereo up to the TV, trying to record the music of MTV videos onto a music cassette. It was the easiest (if by no means the best) way to get your favorite songs without running the risk of buying an album you turned out not to like, simply because you liked the single (this changed as we got older and earned our own money, of course). Like Bryan, I don’t mean to imply that the abundance of available music has made today’s music lovers complacent, but his poem remembers – honors, even – a time when the indefinitely repeated listening experience was at least partially grounded in the fact that it was the best choice you had. It is why I will always have a very special place in my heart for albums like Bryan Adams’ So Far So Good, Aerosmith’s Get a Grip and Bon Jovi’s Cross Road, among others.

That said, my transition to a world of unlimited music choices has been relatively painless. I no longer buy physical CD’s, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to take in so much more music than I even thought possible just five years ago. When we idolize simpler times, I don’t think it’s because we want them to come back; it’s to remind ourselves, and others like us that we were there. Bryan, who bemoans how the playlist has replaced the mixtape, may disagree slightly, but if the music is good enough, or holds enough emotional power, I think – I know! – that some artists or albums can demand precisely the same dedication from a listener, regardless of whether I bring it with on a portable player or I have to to across the room to change to b-side cassette; whether it was one of 200 albums on an iPod or one of 20 on my CD rack. The instant availability of anything else didn’t discourage from entering into to an obsessive relationship with Jay Brannan that has had me listening to his albums almost daily for the last year, or from discovering and wholeheartedly embracing The Jayhawks. And no matter how many choices I’m presented with, my listening pattern has kept remarkably stable for years: I may be into Jesse McCartney, Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift, and Emmylou Harris and The Mountain Goats have definitely paralyzed me for a time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not loyal to Hanson and Bruce Springsteen at my core. In that sense, I’ll always be stuck in 1995, with my Springsteen Greatest Hits compilation, trying to memorize the words to My Hometown.


* Reprinted with permission

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19 Responses to Me Against The Music?

  1. jessiecarty says:

    I have to say I still feel a bit old-fashioned about music. I think the playlist is like making a mix tape but I don’t like having so many songs on the computer and thus on my iTouch because there is frankly just too much to choose from. My husband and I share an itunes account so that is part of the problem. i’d like to just load up one on this old laptop but I don’t use it enough, just to have MY music separate.

    We actually still buy a few CD’s here and there but really only for Pet Shop Boys and Imogen Heap. I also heart the goo goo dolls and Bon Jovi but I’ve switched to all digital buying for them too…ah music :)

    • queerlefty says:


      you will never hear me say that your approach to music is ‘old-fashioned’, and understand your point about how having so much music to choose from can be a challenge in itself. For me, it boils down to a question of ‘loyalty’ to my favorite artists. If letting them compete for attention in my iTunes library had resulted in a reduced willingness to engage deeply with my favorite records, I would have considered that a very real loss. My experience, however, is that if the albums in question mean enough to me, a listening pattern will emerge, one that pays just as much attention to, say, Bruce Springsteen, as I did when I had to go through the (admittedly minor) hassle of taking ‘Born to Run’ down from the shelf and put it in my CD player.

      I love that you still buy the CD’s of selected artists. For me, those are basically two; Hanson and Bruce Springsteen. I can’t give a principled answer as to why I do it, by now I guess it’s simply because I like the thought of having a physical copy of all of their albums. By now, though, I think it’s more important to keep paying for music from my favorite artists, than whether I pay for a CD or a downloadable file.

  2. jay says:

    I so remember taping the top 40 and trying to make sure , you cut off the dj talking over the intro . And of course staying up at listening to John Peel and all the new bands he was playing .

    What I like now is that a lot of the new electro pop bands give tracks away to listen to and download , so you end up coming across some really good music . It has been a long time since i brought a c.d , i think it was morrissey’s last one . I think I might get Tracey’s thorns new one on cd .

    I’m not sure about getting ebooks though on say the Ipad , allthough comics work really well on the mac
    I think i’m too attatched to reading books really .

    • queerlefty says:

      I agree that the chance to discover bands you wouldn’t have in the old days is a good thing, even though it certainly adds to the sense that there will always be so much great music I’m missing. Your point e-books is interesting. I’m a (fiscal?) conservative on this issue, at least until I’ve actually tried the techology. I’m still not sure if a digital reading device can give an equally pleasant experience as that of a book, but I’m to persuasion.

  3. Bryan Borland says:

    “I’m a couple of years younger than the musician who told the story, but I too sat glued to MTV in anticipation of Runaway Train, or Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There, or 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up. If someone had taken that away from me, they would have provoked a one-man riot.” 1993. This was the year I “discovered” music! It was the year after my brother died, and I latched onto music for survival. Runaway Train was my favorite song of that summer, followed by Will You Be There. What’s Up was in my top 10. And then you go and mention those albums – So Far So Good, Get a Grip, and Crossroads – God I loved those, too! Cryin’… OMG!!! And two of those three were greatest hits albums, which I loved becaused they exposed me to the vast catalogs of those artists. (Sidenote – do greatest hits albums ruin the original concept of the album? Nah… I don’t think so… but worth a mention, since it takes the songs out of their original contexts).

    Swear to god we’re the same person.

    Excellent, excellent essay. Speaking of top 10s – this is in my QL top ten for sure. Top 5. And not just because I’m mentioned in it!

    • queerlefty says:


      Your comment kinda reminded me of the ‘I am Malcolm X’ scene ( 7:15) from the Spike Lee movie:

      You: “I am Bryan Borland!”
      Me: “I am Bryan Borland!”
      Jessie: ” I am Bryan Borland!”
      E: “I am Bryan Borland!”

      Aah, Aerosmith! ‘Get a Grip’ was an uneven record, but I still enjoy the singles, ‘Cryin’ among them. And it was kinda cool how they practically made Alicia Silverstone’s career. I bought the ‘Get a Grip’ cassette, while ‘Big Ones’ was one of my first CDs.

      There was a time when I sort of looked down at greatest hits albums. In my music snob years, I convinced myselft that buying a compilation was somehow equal to cheating, in the sense that you let other people tell you what the highlights were, instead of getting to know a discography the hard way. Now I know this is a silly and exclusionary stance. Like you said, greatest hits albums are a service to new listeners, and a starting point for further exploration, not a shortcut for the lazy.

      For most albums, I’d say a greatest hits album does absolutely nothing to ruin the original concept, simply because most albums don’t have a structure strictly intended for a certain pattern of consumption.

      I’m honored that there may be a list of my pieces in your mind somewhere ;)

      • Jessie Carty says:

        you guys are cracking me up! i have to admit that i totally don’t do greatest hits albums! i finally gave in and did one when i was in a hurry for dolly parton. BIG MISTAKE

      • queerlefty says:

        Jessie, is there a story here somewhere? Gotta love Dolly, though! (And yes, the only Dolly record I have is a greatest hits compilation)

  4. jessiecarty says:

    Dude there is ALWAYS a story :)

  5. Oh no, where to start! Dolly Parton, her doing version of ‘silver dagger’ speaks to me in a haunting and echo of her roots has to be my favorite of my husbands itune obsession. My son, well he turns me onto music of indie bands, especially TV inspired talent shows, such as ‘Nuttin But Strings’, freakin my favorite bootlegged itune disk he made for me on my last trip…

    Alicia Silverstone’s career??? We will not go there, lol…What the hell is she doing now? I only ask as a mother, lol!

    QL- you know me, growing up with no money, I had to carefully, and still am the bag lady with her shopping cart full of bargains, side of the road trash-treasures; I will always and forever carefully select what my money is spent on. Music is a luxury, I cannot fathom why people spend money, when it is ‘free’ on a radio :).

    I do have to admit I like the ability of going to and listening to things (playing catch up), where things I have forgotten, to keep me up with my musicians at open mic. Some of those guys know waaaayyyyy more about music, like you and Pink Floyd, etc- as I walk around with more food knowledge in my head…

    I am on the fence when it comes to the rights of authors- music, poetry, etc, but we know better than anyone why we do what we do, and if I do an anthology that I feel should be all together to be understood, then so be it. However even I know that the public in general swings towards favorites, and internalize feelings and memories attached to them.

    Can I go on…should I…leaving it to you young folk! Now if we talk wine and short ribs, you might have to cut me off, block me from here…

    • Bryan Borland says:

      I was always concerned for Alicia’s bellybutton in the video for Cryin’ when she apparently bungee jumped with the cord attached to her belly button ring. Or at least that was how my 13 yr old brain understood it. Time to YouTube that video, too.

      I miss videos.

      I want to publish a Best of the Blogs anthology. Would that be a greatest hits album?

      • queerlefty says:


        I just youtubed the video for ‘Cryin’, and the ending still puzzles me. Like you, however, I was taken back to a time when music videos still mattered, and not because they vent viral for reasons widely outside of the music itself. Here, ‘Will You Be There’ and ‘Runaway Train’ come to mind again; the MJ video for its sheer grandiosity, and the Soul Asylum video for the pictures of all the people who went missing. I want to rant about the demise of music video and MTV (as of a couple of weeks ago they even took ‘Music Television’ out of their logo!), but I’ll try not to.

        As for the anthology question, I wouldn’t count that as greatest hits album per se, unless you count ‘the blogosphere’ as an coherent body of work, the same way you would, say, Bruce Springsteen’s discography. Doesn’t mean it cannot be a good idea, though ;)

      • Oh you guys, now I am googling Cryin’, cause I do not remember the belly button thang…

        Okay watched- Is that Stephen Dorf as her boyfriend? Yep the ending is a bit of what we girls call ‘gluttony for punishment’…the bad boy syndrome…etc…


      • jessiecarty says:

        i LOVE this idea of an anthology! I wouldn’t call it a greatest hits but more of a compilation :)

    • queerlefty says:


      the nice thing about You Tube is that you have access to a lot of music there for free. Sure it invites cherrypicking songs and may undermine the cultural importance of the album, but there is still something democratic about it. The larger question is whether such free sites (that I use frequently) are draining the music economy. I’m not out to defend the record companies, who dragged their feet for far too long when faced with new ways to consume music; I just hope that the bands I love can still make a living by making music!

  6. queerlefty says:

    And E,

    looks like you’re right about Stephen Dorff. I remember watching ‘Backbeat’ when I was 14 (in 1999) and thinking to myself he was kinda hot ;)

  7. queerlefty says:

    I second Jessie’s comment.

  8. Smilie says:

    Your post made me really think about the way my music habits have changed since I wa younger. I was one of those kids who tapped music off the TV or radio. Since we didn’t have a lot of money growing up I had to be really choosy about the few albums I could buy.

    I agree that listening to a whole album gives one a better appreciation of an artist but I’d also argue that newer artists tend to focus on singles rather than an album as a whole. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not but I guess it’s their response to the shift in music consumption.

    • queerlefty says:


      I’m sorry about the late reply, but I’ve been hospitalized for a while, and haven’t been able to blog.

      I suspect that the fact that we are fairly close in age contribute to the our general agreement and common experience on this subject. I’m sure we missed out on a lot of great stuff because we had to get most of our music from the TV and radio, but I still think it fostered a very special bond between us and particular bands and songs.

      Good to have you back!

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