Music Obsessives and the Lives they Lead
By Stephen Carradini
I’ve been evaluating my future with independent music recently. Getting broken up with will make you evaluate a lot of things, and the things I use to escape the world are always on the list. Not initially, of course – I have to bandage my aching soul with Josh Caress before I consider what a life without the band-aids I just applied would be like. But I inevitably will question my love of pop music in the gnarly aftermath of a breakup. It’s not that I’m no longer interested in Novi Split – it’s that I’m too interested in it. Way too interested in it.
In fact, it’s only at these vulnerable times that I see how completely obsessed with music I am – the people, the business, the history, the sound, rhythm, trivia, concerts, everything. I am obsessed with pop culture as it relates to and interacts with music. The reason that this is problematic is that a very small fraction of the world’s population cares about music in this way. Even less care about music as much or more than I do, but there is a very small fraction of the world that even has a form of my all-encompassing obsession.
Considering how few people in the world know who the Flaming Lips are hurts my mind – considering that even less would read a biography about them (such as Jim DeRogatis’ fantastic Staring at Sound, which I just consumed) makes me feel ridiculous. Recognizing an obscure reference to Jim DeRogatis in Jonathan Sellers’ Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life struck me not as a terrible coincidence, but as a sign that I’ve reached a conclusion with a dichotomy: I am a total addict of pop music – I can either accept that or continue to live in denial.
As possibly distressing as my ever-growing amount of obscure music trivia is, there’s something that leaves me even more distraught. What’s more threatening to my well-being is that a large amount, a striking amount, a disturbing amount of those people who care about music as much as I do carry the XY chromosomes. Those who mark their calendar months in advance for album releases and concert dates, obsessively read fan magazines, watch rock DVDs and defend the honor of their bands like they were family? They’re almost all male.
Now I’m not saying that girls can’t be fans of music – may it never be said of me that I uttered such a career-ruining statement. I know plenty of girls who are totally into music. But there are stark few females who are into music in the same way the obsessive male is. Yes, the realm of music obsession seems dominated by males, as even the most musically hip girls I’ve met don’t learn the line-ups of tours they will never see and festivals they will never attend. They don’t scour the internet for new music, and they surely don’t plan their careers with the dream of someday forsaking the parent-approved, sensible, logical “dream” and actually going for the big one: running an independent record store, book store, coffee shop, record label, recording studio, venue, zine, or rock band. They just don’t think that way. Music isn’t the unattainable goal to be lovingly slaved over – music is a side trip. Music is the hobby, not the goal.
This is not the case for me. As I have previously stated, I am obsessed. At this point in my life, I’m still deciding what to do about that.
I do know one thing: until a girl can understand and embrace this aspect of my life, I am toast. Not just tolerate my obsession, either. They’ve got to be on board and taking the trip too before I can commit again. I’m talking “has a similar, if not exactly the same, secret desire.” And you know what? Girls ready to jump headlong into the unendingly exciting uncertainty that is the music business are few and far between.
Side note: Those secret desires make or break your relationships. I could have saved myself three breakups if I had known these following three sentences:
1. I should have had a conversation addressing our secret desires before we started dating.
2. I would have noticed that each of theirs clashed with mine.
3. I could have saved myself the inevitable heartbreak when each girl pronounced that it just wasn’t going anywhere.
After all, it really couldn’t go anywhere – two people going in opposite directions don’t ever end up in the same place. Duh.
Now, I am not totally lost – I can take consolation from my friend Karen. Karen is a very hip, intelligent, girl with a fantastic taste in music, an awesome indie-rock dream (book store) and a totally awesome fiance who apparently harbors the same secret goal of running the bookstore. Karen is also a writer and copy editor for Independent Clauses…so there’s a chance this paragraph might not make it into the edition. It could be edited out.
Regardless, she gives me hope that:
A. There are girls who get as excited about three-day folk festivals in Colorado as I do.
B. These girls are not all creepy, scary feminists who listen to too much Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Le Tigre.
C. There are some girls (no matter how few) who harbor the type of dream I’ve got.
D. Good matches can happen (the fiancé seems as nuts about music as Karen is).
And yet, as soon as hope cracks open the door, another insecurity slams it shut. Yes, here’s another thing that scares me about submitting myself wholly to an interest in music: music obsessives become weird to those around them. I know because I’ve been doing a lot of “research” on obsessive music types: the Flaming Lips biography, John Sellers’ aforementioned hysterical autobiography, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs and what I consider the holy grail of all modern indie rock books, Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity. I’ve held off on watching Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous to console myself, mostly cause I don’t want my favorite movie in any way associated with a breakup. But it should be on the research list, as it fits in with the point I’m about to make.
There are several common threads among these readings/watchings: all the main characters are neurotic. It’s manifested in several ways, of course. Rob Fleming of High Fidelity expresses it by revealing his ridiculously insecure internal dialogue. It’s awesome, yet mildly terrifying – I can also see myself in 20 years freaking out over the same things in many of the same ways. John Sellers’ awesome Joy Division footnote is 8 pages long. Lester Bangs is an alienating, yet awesome, crusader. The Flaming Lips believe whole-heartedly in shooting off cannons of confetti, wearing furry costumes, and celebrating outer space themes (yep…it’s awesome). These guys are the fringe of society, and they would tell you that without pause, complaint or reservation.
While this insecurity (and subsequent publishing of said insecurity) may be proving that I’ve already become what I’m afraid of becoming, here’s the crux of point two: I’m already weird enough to myself in my own head. Do I need other people to confirm my opinion of myself by knowing a ridiculous amount about a subject that will become increasing uncool to know about as years go on? Will I ever be taken seriously by those who aren’t music obsessives? Scientists who cram their heads with scientific knowledge and discover things are revered as relevant to society – can rock journalism (and more importantly, rock journalists) ever be relevant to more than just their fan base?
And that’s the ultimate, final problem here. If I’m going to subject myself to the loss of both relationships and friends over this thing that will seem increasingly juvenile to others as I get older, it had better be pretty important to someone. I know it means a lot to me and my friends now, but can I make a meaningful, useful life out of entertaining fickle college students with prescriptions of good music? Is this something you can dedicate your life to and feel like you’ve made a difference, or is it just indulging a fantasy world? Is this a career of absolute and total escapism, both for you and the people you write for? Do I want to enable escapism? Do I want to be escapist my whole life? Is that all music is – escapism?
I’d like to refute the desperation of the last sentence by spurting some deep philosophical junk about the meaning of pop music. I could talk about the fact that it brings people together, or that some people have life-changing experiences due to a particular song or album. I could also riff on the notion that music defines the different times and places of our lives for us. I might even go for the ideas that music is a link to the vital heart of life or that sometimes people really do need to escape their reality for a while.
But I am aware that while almost everyone goes through a phase where they love music (made even more widespread by the use of the iPod), almost everyone settles into a groove somewhere after age 30 where they’ve got their favorite artists locked in and they generally have more important things to do than obsess over music. Like John Sellers says, “Somewhere along the line they had become adults.”
Or, as he clarifies later in the page:
“There seemed to be unwritten rules for people my age. Having diverse listening tastes: great. Going to the occasional concert: fine. Getting excited about one band more than others: okay, but watch it. Exhibiting fanboy behavior: embarrassing and not to be tolerated.”
Oh geez. That’s me, in 15 years. Now, I’m not saying that being John Sellers is the bad thing here: writing for Spin, writing a book about indie-rock? I can get into that! No, it’s the fact that I can look forward to things getting more and more socially unacceptable as I get more and more involved in rock journalism that bugs me.
And I’ve told myself that I’ll be more on the businessman side of it. I’m the editor. I’m the head of the organization. I’ll be the one taking the checks and facing the facts, as Ben Folds aptly put it (SEE! There’s subtle but condemning proof that I’ll be a fanboy forever. I quote my favorite songs without a hint of irony). But I know it’s not going to be totally true. I’m not going to be going to Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, or any of these businessman’s organizations. I could dress in a suit and show up, for sure (I do own a snazzy suit), but when pressed, they’d reveal their hundred-million-dollar oil distribution business and I’d reveal my niche independent music media organization. I don’t think I want to subject myself to those sorts of pained facial expressions.
And in the attempts to avoid getting myself into situations where people won’t take me seriously, I will, as so many others in the music industry have done before me, retreat to hanging with those who will take me seriously: the guys in the business with me, the bands, and the fans. That’s how we obsessives get thrust to the fringes of society so easily. We readily and purposefully avoid the mainstream because they look down on us. And the mainstream world looks down on us because (surprise, surprise) we avoid them. It’s a sick cycle (I held off on quoting a Lifehouse song, not because most of our readers would cringe at a Lifehouse mention, but because I’ve already name-checked once in the last two paragraphs, and it would start to look like I only know how to relate to the world through quoted songs).
But this still remains: when I sit down to listen to music, I forget all insecurities about my love for it. I get no greater pleasure than finding a new band with an amazing sound. I do feel comforted when I blast quiet music at top volume. My heart still jumps with glee when I get a package from a band I haven’t heard of. I go to concerts whenever I can and don’t feel bad about it. I even look forward to answering business e-mails, as I get to talk to those in music.
When I look at it that way, it’s clear to me that music has enriched my life. Right now, I have an e-mail sitting in my inbox from an artist I admire as an artist and a person. I can even, with a small stretch, call that man my friend, though we’ve never met in person. But I also have many in-person male (and the very occasional female) friends who get the whole music thing. I get continuous support from them. I continue to be amazed and excited as this magazine grows and grows and grows. Even if I may have a future of awkward party introductions (“What do you do?” “I run an independent music magazine.” “Oh, well…I’m a lawyer.”), independent music is ultimately where my heart is at.
And if music is where my heart is, then you know what? I’m going to embrace it. I’m taking the part of the dichotomy that accepts the obsession.
I am odd, I am quirky, I am obsessed with pop music. But it’s what has me writing this column, and what has you reading to the end (I doubt there are any of you left, but thanks anyway). I can be the best at what I do, be the best person I can be, be confident in the blessings God has given me, and chuck everything else to the wind.
Cause that’s where I build my foundation: God, men, rock’n’roll. I just need to be reminded every now and then.