Too much music?

By Peter Valelly

In 1995, music critic Simon Reynolds wrote an article describing “music overload,” the phenomenon of having just too much good music to listen to, stacks and stacks of CDs each awaiting – and deserving – a play. And very few of them achieve the transcendent plane of aesthetic glory that musicians, music critics, and music listeners pray for from every concert, every show, every song. “There is,” concluded Reynolds, “simply too much ‘valid’ music being made for the world to handle.” The result? “The boredom of sheer abundance.” The almost eerie prescience of this article is undermined by Reynolds’ assertion that what he was describing was “an occupational hazard,” a phenomenon to which rock critics – alternately, in his self-deprecating terminology, “professional fans” – were inherently given.

Intriguingly, then, the crisis Reynolds described resurfaced in Nick Southall’s “Soulseeking,” a brilliant piece published about two years ago on the late, great webzine Stylus Magazine. Yet as Southall’s title implied, this was the condition not of having your apartment strewn with label promos and obsessively purchased used records, but of having your hard drive filled to the brim with easily acquired albums that you may never listen to. So unlike Reynolds’ piece, the condition Southall described was not at all particular to the rock-critic breed – or was it? To put it more bluntly, have we all become rock critics in everything but occupation?

This might seem a drastic conclusion to draw. Yet so many friends have complained of what Southall describes. With indie’s rapid ascent into mainstream culture, it appears we have raised a generation of obsessive, even rabid music fans. And even if the meat-and-potatoes artists of ’00s indie – Sufjan, the Arcade Fire, the Shins – inform most of this generation’s taste, everyone loves to proclaim that they “listen to everything” when asked what kind of music they like. And actually, they do.

Squeezed between recent alt-indie favorites like Modest Mouse and previous generations’ legends like the Pixies or the Smiths, an average Macalester student’s iTunes library is likely to feature a variety of interesting wrinkles, whether it be Manu Chao, Cam’ron, or Serge Gainsbourg.

So the positive effect of this is obvious. Our generation’s heightened and intensified rock-critical apparatus has led to a rampant cross-genre exchange of music, an unending dialogue between friends and strangers. And the thing is, so much of what we collectively listen to is really, really good.

Yet even as its spans genres, personality types, and thanks to the Internet physical space, this new music culture remains entrapped within structures of class, race, and gender – not necessarily so much in terms of who is listening as in terms of who is speaking. Mainstream-indie’s bourgeois values square fully with the disintegration of anything that can be described as a “middle class” in contemporary America’s socioeconomic reality. And given the stunning synchronicity between these phenomena and the massive increase in college applications nationwide – not to mention the admission of an oversized freshman class that even the Mac Weekly described, point-blank, as “unexpectedly profitable” – I think most Macalester students, myself obviously included, can be taken as representative of this new generation.

What has suddenly become the standard for this glut of music seems to be a set of affective qualities. It differs from listener to listener exactly what these qualities are, but our generation – and I speak from personal habits – seems hell-bent on the idea that what music makes you feel is somehow prior to and more important than what it actually sounds like. The catastrophic conclusion of this logic is that thinking and feeling about music is somehow more important than its sonic existence.

Reynolds read the “sheer abundance” of “good-to-almost-excellent” music as a symptom of a cultural obsession with “overproduction.” Yet if Southall’s piece describes anything within our contemporary cultural psyche, it is our ravenous drive to overconsumption. So if reading these two articles together provides one truly valuable insight, it seems to, in fact, provide a clue as to the origin of the cultural normatization of “indie.” Reacting to the ’90s’ “overproductive” excess of media – which, yes, has furnished us with perfectly wondrous albums as much as it has assailed us with noxiously faux-witty McDonalds ads – our generation has had no recourse but cultural gluttony.

If “music overload” was a “hazard” of the rock critic’s trade twelve years ago, then a full-spectrum cultural overload is the very material from and for which our generation’s aesthetic sensibility has been wrought. And for all the positive effects of this, I worry that what we all believe to be our increasingly finessed cultural standards may just be the disguised outcome of a careful corporate conditioning well beyond our control and which began even before our birth. Which is fine, if you want to live in the Matrix.

What I suggest is not so much to question this conditioning for the sake of questioning it. I propose that it is, in fact, our duty to determine whether our perspective is, really, based on a set of rigorous standards and values for what recorded sound can do, or whether it is mired in a set of predilections for certain musical affects that serve more as fashion accessories than serious concerns for the sonic qualities of music.

The consequences of failing to do this might exist only in my imagination, but I’m inclined to heed the warning of British pop duo Johnny Boy’s gloriously bombastic 2004 single – which ironically received an ecstatic review amidst American Apparel ads on Pitchfork Media – entitled “You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve.” Let’s be another generation, please.