Q: Whenever I fall in love with a new song, or an old song that’s new to me, I can’t stop playing it on repeat. It’s the only thing I listen to while on runs, in my car, or walking to class. Even in the presence of others, I play the song over and over again. Eventually, after several days or even weeks, this honeymoon phase abruptly ends, and the song starts to annoy me. I can’t help wondering if this burn-through-it approach is problematic. Would it be better if I didn’t listen on repeat, perhaps allowing for a more sustained relationship with the songs I fall for? Or are my indulgences exactly why these songs are made?
A: I don’t think it’s better to manufacture a more sustained relationship with the songs you love. The beauty of music is that we can let it destroy us without needing years of therapy. So go ahead and let these songs love-bomb you, tease and seduce you, inspire someone to yell Get a room!, tear your heart out and leave you for dead. Or, you know, just hold your hand and take you on a leisurely walk. When the song gets on your nerves, move on! Without tears, without processing! If I were you, I’d continue to live fully in the moment with the music you love. After all, if they’re great songs, destined for timelessness, you’ll find them again. Best of all, when you get back together, there will be little judgment or confusion from your friends.
Q: Please help me curate a playlist. My dinner parties are terrible. Please.
A: Here you go. (I’m much better at playlists than cooking, BTW, so thanks for splitting the hosting duties with me.)
- Arthur Russell: “Make 1, 2”
- Caribou: “Bees”
- Pasteur Lappe: “Sanaga Calypso”
- Joe Jackson: “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”
- Alex G: “Runner”
- The Monochrome Set: “He’s Frank (Slight Return)”
- Wire: “The 15th”
- Cochemea: “Mimbreños”
- The Gun Club: “Mother of Earth”
- Talk Talk: “Give It Up”
- Carol Cool: “Upside Down”
- Dee Sharp: “Rising to the Top”
- Neu!: “Isi”
- Rosanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache”
- Bryan Ferry: “Let’s Stick Together”
- Rufus: “Circles”
- Orville Peck: “Dead of Night”
- Yola: “Shady Grove”
- Fleetwood Mac: “Big Love”
- Robert Wyatt: “At Last I Am Free
Q: I’ve always taken pride in my diverse musical taste. I enjoy building my repertoire, seeking out new artists and genres from radically different traditions. But recently this has changed. The only thing I seem to be able to listen to is soft rock from the 1970s. Give me Jackson Browne’s sweet, world-weary melancholia. Give me “Ventura Highway” and the wind in my hair, or Steely Dan to light my way. This music wraps me in a warm blanket that inoculates me against the world. But it’s becoming a problem. I’m cocooning myself in nostalgia for an era I wasn’t even alive for, at the expense of fostering attachments to contemporary artists who can speak to the present moment. How can I rekindle my passion for the unfamiliar, alien, and cutting-edge in music?
“Helplessly Hoping” for your advice,
A: Your fear of the nostalgia trap is a common one. When we have David Bowie, Prince, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, the Clash, Nirvana, Nina Simone, and Bruce Springsteen (the list could go on and on; I actually had a hard time stopping), why do we need, well, anything else? Even when an artist isn’t canonical, a one-hit wonder to which you danced in middle school (cue “Waiting for a Star to Fall” by Boy Meets Girl) can land in a way no contemporary pop song ever will. I relate to the desire to wrap oneself in the familiar, to know what’s coming next, to eschew the discomfort of the unfamiliar. The present day takes effort, a witnessing and a wrestling. As for the future, dread often outweighs optimism. Whether we were around for it or not, there is comfort in what is done, codified, and settled upon. Solution-wise, I hesitate to recommend an algorithm for discovering new music, a.k.a. streaming-service playlists, which lend themselves to conformity and often overlook deeper cuts, and by “deeper” I literally mean an album’s second or third track. Instead, might I suggest you ask a handful of friends or colleagues to give you a list of five contemporary musicians and/or songs they love? Then, if you can, spend some time with these artists. Listen in the background, on the subway, in the car, and see what stands out. Seek out entire albums by the bands to which you’re drawn and give those a listen. As for myself, I try to make a handful of playlists every year that include contemporary artists. At the end of the year, even if it’s only a song or two, I end up loving some of these songs enough to merge them with my perennial favorites. Ultimately, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about your musical taste; many older songs actually do speak to the present moment, just as many current songs do not. We love music that finds us where we’re at, so maybe just broaden who and what can find you.
Q: My friend recently suggested that I have a tendency to form intimate attachments to musical artists based on their being underappreciated. After she said it, I agreed that I hear music differently when it is obscure. There’s a special quality to it. I enjoy feeling like a steward of these musicians and their art, tasked with keeping their dim candle alight while everyone’s attention is elsewhere. The problem comes when they gain any kind of clout—my experience of their music dulls and I give them up. Why can’t I just enjoy this music I love with the rest of the world? How do I live with or without the churlish influence of my inner hipster?
A: I appreciate how old-school this conundrum is. Part of me wants you to really own it and just start brandishing the term sellout to any band with more than ten thousand monthly listeners on Spotify, who’re playing anything bigger than three-hundred-person-capacity clubs, or who’ve had the audacity to build a website. Forming intimate emotional attachments to musical artists is part of being a fan, and I’m sure most songwriters aim to foment a deep and personal connection between their music and the listener. However—and this goes for anything and anyone you love—no one’s candle should remain dim! I can’t imagine any of the artists you love making their vision board or talking to their friends/bandmates/partners about their career and saying things like: My dream is to have Charlie in Indianapolis like my songs plus maybe twenty other people. Total. Forever. Or: Obscurity is our brand. Or: The best way to write music is after coming home from my other three jobs. My advice: celebrate the fact that you’re a seeker and an early adopter and let the rest go. But if you want to keep that inner hipster alive, you can definitely cling to the following sentiment: I only like their first two albums.
Q: My boyfriend “gave me” one of his beats for my birthday. I’m trying hard not to be petty about it, but I feel somewhat disrespected, considering that for his birthday I bought him these expensive headphones I knew he really wanted. It just feels like I was an afterthought to his studio time, though he seems to genuinely consider it a meaningful gift. After he watched me listen, he got clued in to the fact that I was upset, and became gloomy. I ended up having to reassure him that I think his music is great and was happy with his effort. Are you convinced this is the thoughtful present he says it is? Am I just being ungrateful?
A: The fact that you are asking this question makes me think you already know the answer, or know the answer you want. Also, you put “gave me” in quotes, which implies you feel like you weren’t actually given anything. I can see how receiving “birthday beats” could felt a bit tossed off and random. Like a chef bringing home the kitchen leftovers and acting like the food had been cooked for you. Thoughtful, yes, but a gift? Perhaps the difference between a gesture and a present has to do with intention and context. Particularly on birthdays, and definitely if it matters to you! While it sounds sweet to have your partner share his music with you, my guess is you feel like the beats weren’t created with you in mind and therefore don’t measure up to your expectations. This really boils down to communication. If your boyfriend doesn’t know what you like, gift-wise—within reason, of course; not all of us can afford things like a trip to Italy, or to space—then let him know. That way you won’t be disappointed, and he won’t be insulted when you don’t jump for joy over a 180 BPM, woodblock-heavy groove that was originally intended for a Post Malone collab.