Advertising to Myself
oulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
When I left home I took one suitcase and packed in secondhand cardboard boxes—six boxes of books and three boxes of CDs, each and every one too large because I didn't have much experience moving anything more than a mile. I sent the books before I left. I left the music for my parents to send along—and, consequently, for several months in my new environs I had to make do with a hard drive full of MP3s and an expensive, rapidly dwindling spindle of CD-Rs. When the boxes finally came I realized I'd even bungled the packing job. I'd forgotten to include the Grand Anthologies.
In the early, most existentially unforgiving months of high school, my allowance not big enough and my mind not expanded enough to allow for actual music purchases—I had to that point wandered through life with my mother's repurchased Sgt. Pepper's and two classical compilations, each billing itself as "essential", which in a successful effort to woo the ten-year-old aspiring-filmmaker demographic eschewed the usual Bernsteinian criteria of essentiality for a twenty-item checklist on which every item was "bombastic"—my newfound taste for things which were not Holst and Wagner forced the creation of my own "essential" compilations, self-sequenced albums the rest of the world, I was to learn much later when it didn't matter anymore, called "mixes" but which I, Holstian to the bone, called Grand Anthologies. They started the summer before ninth grade, CD-Rs in jewel cases with the tracklistings written in Sharpie on the insert, and they were numbered, naturally, in the Roman fashion: Grand Anthology I, Grand Anthology II, etc., indistinguishable save by silly name from the mixes kids half my age were making, except kids half my age were probably listening to cool stuff, and I was listening to James Bond themes and the Peanuts Kids' Choir do "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Things changed in high school, when the prospect of churning out a Grand Anthology IV was so horrifying—was I in a rut?—that I scrapped the original Anthology line for a series of albums bearing their own titles, all preceded by a colon preceded by a "Grand Anthology", as in Grand Anthology: Voyage of the Mayflower, which took its name from "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" and which was the first Grand Anthology to be aggressively advertised to absolutely nobody. VotM's liner notes described the CD as "the second in a series of semi-concept albums", and lauded it for "embrac[ing] more than one side of music"—it embraced two sides: Bob Dylan and Everything Else—and though it didn't mention the inspired juxtaposition of "The Tigger Song" ("The wonderful thing about Tiggers / Is Tiggers are wonderful things", etc.) with Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," it left no other feature unadvertised. To this day the titled Grand Anthologies bear every sign of having been manufactured for an audience of millions. And not one was heard by anyone but me.
Pessimistic social criticism is so easy to extrapolate from this behavior it's like shooting very uninteresting fish in a barrel: I was a product of America's cheerful, laminated consumer culture; I was uncomprehendingly imitating the soulless smiles and empty superlatives splattered across every product I saw; I was at the vanguard of a generation prepared to avoid selling their souls by avoiding being born with them; I was way too big a Dylan fan. But I prefer, understandably, to construct more innocent motives for myself—sweeter, simpler, even sadder. It wasn't American culture in general I was unconsciously absorbing; it was my nascent CD collection I was consciously imitating, trying to make the songs I ripped off as much a part of my collection as the ones I paid for, trying to invest them with the same gravity granted the others by the collective labor behind them. Young, and so far unpolluted by purist notions of things being About The Music, I knew that what made my mother's copy of Sgt. Pepper's special wasn't just John Lennon's backup vocals on "Getting Better"; or the aural sawdust in which George Martin covered "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite"—it was also the collage on the cover; the red in which everything was drenched; the weight of the jewel case and the thickness of the booklet—too thick; you could never get it back in once you'd read it—the way it looked on the shelf with all the writing sideways. The album wasn't itself without all of this. So here I was sloshing "Desolation Row" and half of Blonde on Blondeacross half-baked mix CDs—the least I could do was give the stuff a good home.
My idea of which version of Sgt. Pepper's' packaging is definitive, of course, isn't so much subjective as it is totally invalid: that album was designed to be on vinyl, in a big sleeve that doesn't reduce the faces behind the Beatles to cramped, illegible scribbles of photography. And the endless essay by someone-or-other about something-or-other in that thick booklet wasn't supposed to be there either. I only see it as definitive in my unexamined moments, when I'm running on memories, and much later I did get it on vinyl, and when I moved my mother kept it anyway—but it was apparent to me when I made my Grand Anthologies that real music, the kind you bought and collected and kept on the shelf and didn't feel guilty about when you read the Newsweek technology section, had to be something more than music; it had to have something. And since at the time I wasn't really aware that some musicians had very little, I assumed it had to have a lot. Hence printed tracklistings, printed liner notes, irrelevant album titles—Six Story Submarine was one—and the pretense, alarmingly straight-faced, that everyone was buying these.
We all know that memory is indiscriminate, and that inconsequentialities have as great a chance of accruing the weight of decades as do those decades' greatest triumphs or disasters—this is how Proust wrote a thirteen-volume novel about cake—but my memories of albums I used to listen to constantly and don't so much now are so unanimously and inextricably connected to their packaging that it can't be an accident, like the madeleine; it must be a rule. I know what they smell like. Sgt. Pepper's smells like Dark Side of the Moon. Weezer's Blue Album smells like sunblock. The White Album smells like nothing else in the world. OK Computer smells terrible. And it isn't just the packaging that's important; to really return to a piece of music you've been missing, every detail has to be right. My girlfriend put on You Forgot it in People the other day, and the high I was expecting at hearing "Cause=Time" for the first time in a while was ruined when we got past the fifteen-second mark without hearing the ugly sound of an MP3 glitch—this wasn't the version I listened to the year I graduated from high school, the one I carried into the field behind my house while working out the storyline for a movie I wasn't sure I was going to make, the one I played in the car while driving to the hotel where the movie was made. This was the CD version—which I'd also heard, of course, and which I had; I'd bought it partly on principle and party because I thought the music needed some packaging. But by then it was too late.
It's too late for a lot of the songs on the Grand Anthologies, too. Heinous as it is, it's difficult for me to imagine "Desolation Row" or "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" in the context of their albums; they're Grand Anthology tracks, best heard jammed against Disney songs and my own thirty-second experiments in musique concrète using clips from A Fish Called Wanda. When a Boomer teacher my freshman year saw the tracklisting and requested her own copy of Voyage of the Mayflower, the modifications she made—put "Stairway to Heaven" on it; remove the sound collages, which might have offended me had I not realized even then that they were probably costing me thousands of sales—made it impossible for me to call it Voyage of the Mayflower; I plastered some other name across the front, not that she cared. I saved every Grand Anthology I made, twenty or so over four years, plus Holiday Specials; I kept them in order on the shelf, and I can still restore that order, if needed, from memory.
But when I left home they stayed there. I wonder if this was really an accident. I'm more serious about music now, more desirous of being respectful of musicians' choices; I write for Stylus; I'm supposed to know something. So maybe I meant to leave my mixes behind. Maybe I was trying to discard the emotional residue of my old habit. Maybe I hoped that someday I could hear "Queen Jane Approximately" and not think it odd when it was followed immediately by "Highway 61 Revisited", no "Tigger Song" in sight. But I'm not sure it'll work, because no matter how many hundreds of times I listen to albums as they're intended, no matter how many life-changing events play out to a soundtrack previously associated with a girl saying yes, or—to be more statistically accurate—no, I'm not sure any of this music can ever get out from under the old thumb of the Anthologies. Some people will never be able to think of R.E.M. as anything other than the band that played at the first show they went to; some people, bless their hearts, will always file "Where Is My Mind" as "the song from Fight Club". And maybe it's time we stopped treating this as a mistake—music is about emotion, and emotion is about context, and even if there is a particular context towards which the artist has labored, maybe it's not so bad if we miss it. Anyway, if the music's good it'll probably have a say in what memories it's assigned; only bad music or transcendent music can get associated with anything.
Or maybe all this is just desperation at not being able to fix my own memory. After all, my attempt to replicate commercial weight was too successful, and no amount of artistic weight will ever undo it. I've fallen for my own ad campaign. If the songs weren't meant to be heard like this, why was the packaging so good?