Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Pop music, novelty, and aging

Benn Ray's "The Day the Music Died" (printed in the Mobtown Shank a little over a week ago) reminded me of Robert Sapolsky's "Open Season: Why Do We Lose Our Taste for the New?" (from the 30 March 1998 issue of The New Yorker): both essays are concerned with the question of when we lose our taste for novelty in music. Sapolsky found that
Most people are twenty years old or younger when they first hear the popular music they choose to listen to for the rest of their lives. When we combined those results with a measure of how variable the data were, we figured out that if you are more than thirty-five years old when a style of popular music is introduced there's a greater than ninety-five per cent chance that you will never choose to listen to it. The window has closed.
His scientific method does not permit him to speculate on why we lose the taste for new music at thirty-five—there is a vague sense that it's almost biological or something. Cue Benn:

The older you get, and the more your musical knowledge expands, the harder and harder it becomes to find music that you think is brilliant, to find music that blows your mind. If, you're like one of my more curmudgeonly friends, it either all starts to sound rehashed and recycled or trying too hard to sound new when it's not.

When you're in your twenties, the possibility is greater for a band to change your life. But when you get into your 30s, you start to look at bands that get progressively younger each year, and you think, "What the fuck can a 23 year old from Brooklyn tell me about the human condition that I don't already know?"

When the Sapolsky piece came out, I was naturally anxious about the very effect he describes: in my late thirties, I had recently passed through a period of increased awareness that I was losing my, er, edge. (Fortunately, the late nineties were a fertile time for new music: the mature axis of hip-hop, the democratization of technology, and a global economy that provided easy access to music from around the world created a perfect storm that saw a feverish rush to supply consumers hungry for the latest hybrid.)

It's funny that Benn mentions Bloc Party in passing ("You belittle each other for liking the Bloc Party when clearly they are just aping a trendy sound to make a quick buck"), because I'm currently sorting through a lot of records that don't sound very fresh to these aged ears, even as they're getting respectable reviews (see the Kaiser Chiefs, Louis XIV, even Guero, Beck's latest). I want something fresh sounding, something that jumps out at me and demands that I listen (over the past coupla years, disques like the Strokes' records and last year's Franz Ferdinand, even guilty pleasures like Jet's Get Born): after forcing myself to listen, fitfully, for a few weeks, I realized that it's a lost cause—I've just got to wait for that rare guitar record to cross my path.

Descartes recognized that wonder fades with age, and, as a result, we have to seek out ever more exotic sources to experience the high that came more readily with youth. It's not a mistake that I cotton to pop from Jakarta, or Charles Wilp's Bunny, or mash-ups of the Clash and Basement Jaxx: it's hard to get a buzz when you're a compulsive consumer of novelty.


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