Friday, December 6, 2013

From the Archives: 100 Songs for 2012

[We'll be premiering 100 Songs for 2013 on December 9.  Between now and then, we'll be re-visiting the 100 Songs collections of previously years, now with Spotify playlists!]




December 10, 2012:

"We can't change the present or the future.  We can only change the past, and we do it all the time." - Bob Dylan

***

It was a summer of speeches.

In ballrooms and banquet halls, folded into church pews, crouched awkwardly on tasteful indoor/outdoor furniture, I sat and listened to all the well-wishers who just wanted to say a few words, on this day of all days, in honor of best friends, oldest daughters, baby brothers, new sisters-in-law.

Everyone wanted to remember.  Everyone had a story to tell, from decades ago, back before all this, when the guests of honor were toddlers, teenagers, college freshmen, new kids in town, strange faces at the office.  Each story described, in painstaking detail, a lifetime of awkward misunderstandings, questionable fashion choices, forgotten pop culture obsessions, dated haircuts, slapstick accidents, every sitcom plotline come to life.

We laughed and laughed.

And then, when the laughter died down, we looked over at the bride and groom, mischievous grins replaced with proud smiles, and we remarked to each other how proud we were, how far we had come, how we couldn't believe that the awkward kid was all grown up, had found the love of his life, had met the one person who would always be there for her.  And we raised our glasses to continued success and happiness.

But, hold on.  Isn't it kind of amazing that we all turned out so well when pretty much every one of our past incarnations was just barely functional as a human being?  How does that work?

***

Honestly, is there any version of your past-tense self that doesn't leave you mortified?

Grade-School Aaron wore a Dallas Cowboys Starter jacket, had those Vanilla Ice horizontal lines cut into the side of an otherwise normal haircut, and thought Rush Limbaugh was pretty funny.

High School Aaron would tell you that all good music had been made before he was born, devoured anything Star Wars-related, and would have worn nothing but AND1-brand clothing had that been a possibility.

College Aaron voted for Ralph Nader, ate pizza rolls as a meal at least three times a week, and couldn't run a mile without collapsing in a panting heap.

Law School Aaron watched an entire season of Entourage in one sitting, earnestly maintained a MySpace account, and wore a Crown Royal t-shirt on the second day of classes under the assumption that this would make people think he was cool.

Three take-aways from that little trip down memory lane:  One, it took me a shockingly short period of time to think of those examples.  I'm sure that there are hundreds more, and I'm sure that Elliot Mann will list all of them in the comments.

Two, those are the faults that make me sound endearing.  There are plenty of things about my past selves that aren't as likely to elicit a chuckle.  Past Aaron acted like endless sarcasm somehow worked as a personality, thought that quoting from movies and TV shows was the same as having a sense of humor, and generally walked around like he thought he was better than everyone and everything.  So … I'm going to stick with surface flaws, if that's okay.  Maybe we'll delve deeper in next year's essay.

Three, armed with an understanding of this inescapable pattern, how do you attempt to interact with Future You?  Because, honestly, the best you can hope for is that Future You looks back with a knowing smile and a slow, almost disbelieving shake of the head.  "Oh yeah, 2012 Aaron.  That guy sure thought he had it all figured out, didn't he?"

I'm pretty okay with my current self, but I acknowledge that I come from a long line of idiots who shared my name and social security number.  Is there any reason to believe that Future You isn't going to add Present You to that list of idiots?

***

How do you earn Future You's approval?  I guess there are two ways you could attack the problem.  One, you could run headlong into the screaming, unknowable future, embracing anything and everything, shedding identities almost at random in an attempt to flash-evolve into the kind of person Future You might like.  When you don't know where you're going, the important thing is to get there as fast as possible, right?

Two, you could cease all motion completely.  If you never change anything, then Future You will be exactly the same as Present You.  Look, you dragged Future You down to your level!  You won!

On second thought, that doesn't sound like a victory.

***

I think about both of these potential paths when listening to new music.  Does falling in love with a new band mean, on some level, becoming a new person?  Does endlessly replaying that new album by an old favorite mean you're stuck in a rut?  I'm pretty comfortable answering that second question with a "no."   That first question, though, is exciting and potentially terrifying and I think the answer might be "yes."

***

There was a period this year where I listened to nothing but the new albums from the Mountain Goats, AC Newman, Japandroids, Gaslight Anthem, and Passion Pit.  Every so often, I would wonder why I wasn't discovering any new bands.  I wondered if I had hit some kind of wall, if this was it, if twenty years from now I would still be listening to these same bands and only these same bands, obliviously boring hapless party guests with stories about the Good Old Days.

There was a period this year where I listened to nothing but Purity Ring, Charli XCX, Crystal Castles, Tanlines, and Young Galaxy.  Every so often, I would wonder what had happened to all my old favorites.  I wondered why those old bands didn't resonate with me anymore, why I was so quick to throw them overboard and move on to the next thing, if that remorseless detachment said anything about deeper character flaws in me.  I wondered if I would always be drifting, chasing trends, resigned to the fickle tastes of Pitchfork and the Hype Machine.

How was I to choose between those two listening philosophies?

***

Here's the thing, though: this is a false dichotomy.  Of course it's a false dichotomy.  It's easy to set up a problem by claiming, "These are the two choices, and you have to choose."  It's even easier to respond by saying, "Well, what if I didn't have to choose?  Wouldn't that solve the problem?"  And yeah, it would.

And actually, I think it goes further than that.  I think that collection of idiot Past Yous is absolutely necessary to the potential happiness of Future You.  You grow by adding, not by replacing.

I know this is how it happened with me.  Start with that awkward kid, hopefully not still wearing the Cowboys Starter jacket but probably wearing something equally ridiculous.  Fourteen, maybe fifteen years old.  Horrible taste in music.  He loves Blues Traveler, he loves Sublime, he loves the Eagles, he loves dozens of comically derivative Christian rock bands.  Now start adding, slowly at first, then sometimes too quickly, maybe more than he can process, but keep going.  Add Talking Heads, add Stone Roses, add The Clash.  Add hundreds of people, friends and classmates and co-workers, with their own tastes and opinions.  Add places, foods, drinks, the impersonal march of history.  Add the internet.  The whole thing.  Keep adding.  Each layer makes the next layer possible.  But you had to start with that kid.  Without him, it doesn't work.  And give that kid some credit - from the beginning, he loved the Beatles, and Parliament Funkadelic, and Outkast, though at the time he just knew Outkast as the stuff the older kids listened to at basketball camp.  Add, don't replace.

***

This year, I'm a guy who loves The Hold Steady and CHVRCHES.  Last year, I was a guy who loved The Hold Steady and had never heard of CHVRCHES, largely because they didn't exist.  This new version of me is incrementally happier, just slightly more interesting, more open to new experiences, more willing to embrace things I previously would have seen as foreign and weird.  Every new band has that effect on me.  But they're all building on those Beatles records, those Shins records, those Hold Steady records ... even those f***ing Eagles records.  I once owned a Kid Rock CD.  I paid real money for it, at a time when I was making something like $6.50 an hour washing dishes at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.  It hurts to admit that, but it's still part of who I am, how I see the world, no different than the fact that I once saw the Libertines in front of like 100 people at 7th Street Entry.  You don't shed the past, you just use it to process the present.  And the future.

***

It doesn't mean keeping everything forever.  I certainly wouldn't want to keep Kid Rock forever, and even some recent favorites have fallen by the wayside.  I lost Band of Horses somewhere this year, and The National, and Yeasayer.  I know I loved those bands at one point, but now they just don't hit like they used to.  I'm not sure if I feel the same way about Ellie Goulding anymore, and I have my suspicions about Free Energy going forward.  It's okay.  That happens.  You can't keep everything.  And you shouldn't.

***

So here is a list of 100 songs.  We're going to take these songs, and we're going to add them to Present You, add them to all the songs you love today, all the songs you can't believe you loved ten years ago, all the songs you once hated but now think are kind of okay, all the guilty pleasures that evolved into just-regular-pleasures, all the old favorites that you've now heard so many times that you're going to start screaming if anyone so much as hums three seconds of the chorus.

And you start with Present You, and you add something to it, and the results cannot possibly be anything but positive.  Because you're adding.

And you'll add more stuff next year, and the year after that, and songs that you won't hear for two more years will inform the way you react to songs that you won't hear for five more years.  And eventually all those reactions will add up, and they'll change you ever so slightly, and then ever so slightly again, and somewhere along the line you'll become a demonstrably different person, and Future You will look back at Present You and laugh at your stupid phone.  You thought that thing was so cool!  What was wrong with you? 

You two might like some of the same stuff, but for your sake I hope it's not much, because the difference will be all the great new stuff you added between now and then.  You're going to look ridiculous to Future You, probably for a number of reasons.  There really isn't much you can do about it.  Which, I guess, is kind of the point.

1 comment:

  1. I am a person who tends to like songs 11-20 and 80-100. That said, I like Sonsick better than your previous Number 1s. Thanks again for providing 90% of the new music I will have heard this year (that isn't by Raffi or Caspar Baby Pants). Ben and I always enjoy the weekend after your list comes out.
    - Grace

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