I’m not sure when it started, but at some point over the last several years I replaced listening to music with listening to people talking. Looking back, it must have happened slowly, in increments. First, I began passing over the usual rotation of songs in my iTunes library in favor of some addictive podcast like Serial or S-Town. Instead of Tom Waits or Aimee Mann accompanying me on my daily errands, I’d find myself on the edge of my subway seat waiting for a murder (along with the social, economic, and psychiatric conditions surrounding it) to be endlessly parsed and potentially never solved.
Later, the political climate turned following the news into something like a round-the-clock assignment. So I dutifully stuffed my brain with news analysis — everything from The Daily to the Slate Political Gabfest to good, old-fashioned NPR (yes, on the actual radio) — in the hope of hearing something that would help me make sense of the world. That effort being the fool’s errand that it obviously is, I’d load up on even more podcasts, many of them analyzing the analysis itself. Whereas once I might have listened to a classical music station while eating dinner, I now listened to disembodied voices — not even talking heads but talking ghosts — having conversations about obscure issues I only knew about thanks to other conversations I’d listened to while eating breakfast. (I live alone, as you may have gathered.)
I should clarify that music isn’t gone entirely. I’ll have my iTunes on shuffle when I go out for a run, stopping frequently to type in my phone password in order to scroll to the next song, which tells you something about my seriousness as a runner. Whenever I rent a car out of town, I listen to music almost exclusively, partly because the novelty of Bluetooth technology and being able to access my phone from a car dashboard (my car is 20-years-old and has a cassette player) still has me in awe. A few times a year I’ll find myself at some kind of live music event: jazz in the park or one of the chamber music salons my neighbor hosts periodically. For the most part, however, music — at least the foreground kind, the kind you choose based on your mood, the kind that makes you feel like a kid listening in your room even if you’re old enough to have a whole house — has largely left my life.
I can’t blame this on the cacophony of politics and the whiplash of the Trump presidency, since this all started well before the 2016 election. Nor do I think it has that much to do with the emergence of podcasts. There may be something like 820,000 podcasts out there, only a small fraction of which anyone actually listens to but they’re still dwarfed by the number of music recordings available — mostly through streaming services. On Spotify, which I rarely use (I say it’s because it’s supposedly bad for artists, but really it’s because I find it overwhelming) 20,000 new tracks are added each day. Individual music downloads have been on the decline for the last several years (although vinyl began making a niche comeback in 2006 and actually outsold CDs last year). There are 43 million songs available to purchase on iTunes and, according to at least one estimate, the average iTunes user has a library containing 7,160 tracks. My own Apple music library has thousands of songs covering hundreds of artists and albums. In my ancient Bluetoothless car, cracked CD cases and shamefully scratched discs and battered cassettes cover the backseat the way dog hair still covers the interior walls and ceiling — despite the dog no longer being around.
So it’s not like there was a day over the past few years when the music died.
What’s happened is that as I’ve grown older there’s scarcely a song in my iTunes library that doesn’t make me so sad as to render it almost unlistenable.
The songs we love become the half-life of our emotions. They are whatever’s left of whatever was going on at the time.
That statement is so dark I almost didn’t write it, but there it is. And when I try to figure out how I got to this place, all I can think is that it’s not just music we’re talking about here but the soundtrack to a life. And that is a very different thing than just a bunch of songs.
My music collection may exist in the form of digital files now, but it was once made of vinyl records played on turntables in my childhood bedroom, cassettes in my Sony Walkman in high school and college, and discs loaded into the CD player of my towering “stereo” in dingy, early adulthood apartments. As such, it mapped itself across the plains of my life trajectory. This is what music does, of course. It embeds itself into our emotions, often burrowing far deeper than the memories of the events that spurred those emotions. From there, the songs we love become the half-life of our emotions. They are whatever’s left of whatever was going on at the time.
I may not remember every detail of the summer of 1987 (it was a big one, since it was the first summer I could drive on my own) but the music I listened to during those months — Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing; the XTC album Skylarking — will forever be knitted into the thrilling, slightly chaotic sensation of pressing a gas pedal and moving myself forward. The early months of college may be a blur, but I cannot hear even four seconds of a track off Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside (though the album was a decade old by then) without smelling the Pine Sol and cigarette smoke of the dormitory halls.
In the last few years, though, my music collection became a minefield in which any given song, if allowed to play past the first few seconds, has the potential to blow a crater of sorrow right below my feet. A search for music has me clicking past tracks as if they were disturbing photos from which I have to avert my eyes. Not that one; it’s what I was listening to in the early divorce days. Not that one; it’s from the dying mom year. Not that one; it’s what was in the car CD player during that terrible summer after I turned forty.
Strangely, even music from happier, long ago times has taken on a hue of melancholy. Not this one; it’s what I listened to on the stereo in that first dingy apartment, back when my options were limitless if only I’d been able to see them. Even Pine Sol and cigarette-infused Kate Bush, with all her college-era associations of higher knowledge and new love and the heady revelation that there are million different ways you can be in the world, can send my mood crashing down so hard it breaks the whole day. Not just because there are no longer a million different ways I can be in the world but because I now realize there never were. There was only one way, the one that led me to where I am now — not a bad place by any means, but still one in which I cannot listen to most music.
Whereas I once organized my life around music, I now organize it around podcasts. In a way, I’ve come to avoid my own music as if avoiding pain. That’s another statement so dark I almost hesitated to write it, but something tells me I’m not the only one in this predicament. As someone noted to me recently, “Music is alive with associations. I can’t listen to some of it if it’s too connected to a painful situation. Podcasts don’t seem to hold those same associations for me.”
This observation was a response to a highly scientific poll I conducted on Twitter recently, asking my followers what they listened to more frequently, music or podcasts. If the answer was podcasts, I asked, was it “because there’s almost something too emotionally intense about music? Because music leaves you alone with your thoughts the way podcasts don’t?”
The answers were split pretty evenly between music and podcasts, with many people adding audiobooks to the list of distractions (somehow I’ve never taken to these; preferring to hold books in my hands so I know how many pages are left). But a number of people offered thoughts similar to my own. One man said he preferred podcasts because “music seems to largely dump unvarnished and unwelcome emotion into my frontal lobe these days.”
Another said this: “A lot of my favorite music from teenage-young adult years has too many memories attached to it (“intense” is the perfect word to describe it because it’s not necessarily good or bad). And at almost 40 I find it impossible to discover or enjoy new music.”
Data does reliably show that most people’s musical tastes are locked in by their early twenties, with the songs that are popular in our early teens occupying a special place, no matter how cheesy or terrible (I guess that explains my ongoing affinity for The Go-Gos, though they’re not in my iTunes library.) That makes this phenomenon of age-related music avoidance all the more depressing. If the losses that pile up as we get older actually drive us away from the music that buoyed us in our youth, what’s left? Are we destined to live out our days listening to the grating-if-charming vocal fry of millennial podcasters or the hyper-enunciated lullaby of audio books? Will we never sing in the car again? Okay, make that, will I ever sing in the car again?
Maybe the solution, at least my solution, is to get a new car, one with Bluetooth so I can listen to my old music in a new way. Or force myself to listen to — and enjoy, god dammit — some new music. Or stop being such a sad sack about everything. Or stop having sad sacks like Aimee Mann and Tom Waits in such heavy rotation.
Or, if all else fails, make a 17-part podcast delving into the psychology of listening to people talking rather than people making music. I would totally listen to that. It would probably make me so sad I’d go back to music.