Yr Own 5-10-15-20


5-10-15-20 is a regular feature on Pitchfork where we ask musicians about the music from their lives in 5-year intervals; I’ve done fun interviews with Johnny Marr and John Cale. If you wanted to do one I’d love to read it. I’ll add mine at some point. You could give the year for each age.

Links are to the songs on Spotify.

5 (1983): "Pinball Number Count" by the Pointer Sisters

I don’t remember listening to music before the age of seven or eight, although I’m sure I did; or rather, I’m sure that records were played on my parents’ turntable and I sometimes paid attention and sometimes didn’t. I was more interested in books and television when I was small — music seemed like a mysterious and not entirely comfortable force, something that could inspire deep emotion and therefore something to be wary of. The music that did make its way into the lumber room of my mind consisted mostly of educational jingles — the alphabet song,one that rang the months of the year, and of course whatever Sesame Street was running. Inevitably, I chose the Sesame Street song with the most latter-day credibility as a representation of educational song (I could easily have chosen "There Are Chickens in the Trees") — the Pointer Sisters are great no matter what they’re singing.

10 (1988): "Amen" by Glad

In the summer of 1988, my construction-teacher father took a contracting job from friends of the family to build a cabin on a small property in the mountains of eastern Arizona. (If you know the area, it’s between Payson and Snowflake.) The whole family went along to stay in the cabin while he built it; from a skeletal wood frame to insulation, drywall, tiling, and a back deck, it grew over the two or three months we spent in the mountains. The kids mostly stayed outside, running through masses of ferns, climbing trees, hoarding pine cones, walking down to the pond where we skipped stones and caught dragonflies and came back wailing with pine sap stuck in our hair.

The soundtrack to all of this was a handful of cassettes my parents had recently acquired; devout fundamentalist evangelicals, they only listened to Christian music, and so so did their children; though I was awarded a small tape deck at nine years old, it would be another three years and half a continent before I would dare to flip the switch to FM and go rustling through the staticky undergrowth in search of I knew not what. Glad’s The Acapella Project was a favorite of my mother’s, and of mine — five terrifyingly virtuous male voices wrapping over and under one another in dense layers of harmony and rhythm. I was intrigued most by their experiments with sound like “Depending on Your Love” (which used samples of fingersnaps and claps to create a rhythm track, cheating a capella purists) and “Amen,” which had only one word on the lyric sheet. Later, as a Catholic, I would learn that the history of writing extremely complex music for an Amen is a very old Christian tradition, but I was still without liturgy or instruction. Glad’s “Amen,” long enough to be a pop song, still sounds like sunshine in cool weather to me.

15 (1993): "What’s Up" by 4 Non Blondes

I had been, sneakily at first, and by degrees openly, listening to secular music for a couple of years by this time. The family had moved to Guatemala, where my parents were missionaries, and I went to a high school for the children of missionaries (our big sporting rival was the school the children of diplomats went to, and they kicked our asses every time). I still listened to a lot of Christian music (it was the era of DC Talk and Jars of Clay), but I also listened to the radio, and I had not yet learned to be bored by oversaturation, or to distance myself from the uncool, over-earnest, or girly. Today “What’s Up” reads like a parody of 90s alt-unctuousness, wide-eyed hippiedom without a thought in its head, but at the time I was mesmerized by Linda Perry’s sub-Janis yowl and the sway of the bluesy post-chorus chords. I didn’t have a context to put it into — I hadn’t heard Janis Joplin (or the blues), and when my friends at the missionary kids’ school scoffed at my liking it — Nirvana and Ice Cube were the cool boys’ preference — I listened again and couldn’t hear anything wrong with it. I still can’t, really.

20 (1998): Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

I was in college by this point — or in the first couple of years of an undergrad career that would take more than a decade to complete, with long gaps during which I worked and tried to figure out what I was. (I’m still a couple of credits short.) I learned that I loved the music of George Gershwin in perhaps the most roundabout way possible: I picked up Glad’s (them again) A Cappella Gershwin in a Christian bookstore, and was mesmerized by George’s swoony, half-bluesy melodies and Ira’s snappy, slangy lyrics. A roommate who was studying classical music lent me his CD of Gershwin orchestral music (he preferred Gavin Bryars), and I played it — particularly the Rhapsody — over and over again while writing papers and making my first tentative step onto the Internet. I took a classical-music appreciation course, and, bowing to the inevitable, wrote a paper on Gershwin. My obsession with the cultural production of the 1920s didn’t start here, but it was crystallized here; in another two years I would discover Napster, and the entirety of musical history would lay before me.

25 (2003): "The Good Old Days" by The Libertines

The Anglophilia of a boyhood spent absorbing C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien made its way into punk rock by the early 2000s, and it was the Libertines’ scuzzy Albion mythology that first got me hooked on them. A song that namechecked Boadicea in its opening lines (I only knew who she was because John Cullen Murphy’s Prince Valiant met her in the 90s, and we had an encyclopedia handy) became my favorite of their songs; by this time in my life I was already a slave to nostalgia, both personal (the lost glories of careless youth in Guatemala) and communal (the standard Tory lament about modernization and industrialization; there was still more Tolkien in my brain than I knew). I had begun to haunt used-book shops, and collected pretty much anything from the early twentieth century, American or British, that came in a beautiful binding and let me feel as though I weren’t living in the modern world.

30 (2008): "Got Money" by Lil Wayne ft. T-Pain

In the summer of 2008, my second iPod died just before I began a job that required a forty-five-minute commute. In the pre-iPod days I had either listened to classic-rock stations or burned CD mixes to while away the commutes, but my car was temperamental about CDs and I had long since assimilated anything that would be played on the classic-rock stations. There was only one world left undiscovered: modern pop. I programmed in the handful of stations I knew of, and prepared myself for purgatory.

It genuinely is the case that — aside from huge, inescapable smashes like “Hey Ya” or “Toxic” — I know hardly anything about genuinely popular music between about 1998 and 2008. I was not paying attention. I was off in the 60s or the 20s or the 70s or the 80s, working out the roots of ragtime or the many varieties of kosmische; when I did surface to the current year, it was mostly to see what Pitchfork was into, and that interested me less and less after the Arcade Fire came and went without affecting me. (The Pipettes, on the other hand…) So I landed into pop as innocent as a newborn babe, right in the middle of Lil Wayne’s apotheosis. I’d been catching up on Tom Ewing’s pop-first view of music for a couple of years, and after the first shock of disgusted “what is this garbage” middle-class-white-man sneer, tried to listen to the music on the radio the way its audience would — since I was in Phoenix, with the ears of a young Hispanic teenager. I ended up dazzled by Wayne’s garbled AutoTune, I fell in love with the cool glide of Chris Brown’s “Forever,” I was genuinely thrilled by the lead single from 808s & Heartbreak (and then I was heavily unimpressed by “Just Dance”). I bought a new iPod after a couple of months, and went back to listening to everything; but I kept the pop stations programmed in, and listened to them regularly too. And then I started writing about it.

35 (2013): 

I’ve been thirty-five for less than a month now, and I don’t know that I listen to anything more than anything else at the moment. I have various listening-and-writing projects I’m struggling to get under control, I have podcasts and Spotify and a small music library on my laptop. But I left the 1TB external hard drive with all my music on it in Phoenix, along with all my CDs and LPs (and 45s and 78s and cassettes). I don’t even have a radio; my Chicago apartment is decidedly spartan.

I’m still working out my next move, in terms of heavy-duty music listening. There are a half-dozen back-burner projects I need to get back to — or begin — but as none of them will be particularly lucrative, I’m hanging fire on them while I scramble to get pitches together on new music and current news pegs. And look for a real job.

Watch this space, I guess. Whatever I remember 2013 for, it’ll almost certainly be impossible to predict today.