2007 Year-End Thoughts
I Humanize the Vacuum
n April I attended a conference of pop writers at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, where I presented a paper on state-sanctioned music in North Korea. Much of the paper dealt with my physical remove from actual North Koreans and my appetite for getting drunk alone, though I didn’t state the latter explicitly. In the course of listening, I’d sprung a well of deep thought but divorced myself, completely, from any sort of social experience. In a way, it was one of the purest musical experiences one could have: just me and the music and my imagination. But I didn’t feel immersed, I felt obsessed, claustrophobic, nervy, confused as to my relevance.
My alienation was compounded by the fact that I didn’t get along with most of the people at the conference. I didn’t not get along with them either; I oscillated between indifference and mild discomfort. I found myself leaving Saturday night’s party every 15 minutes to smoke (which I don’t do often) or call a friend (which I do plenty, but try to avoid after certain hours or blood-alcohol levels). On the last day, I remember finally having my first real, face-to-face talk with writer Carl Wilson, who I’d long exchanged emails with.
“Have you had fun?,” he asked.
“Yes. Wait.” Carl, a man of patience and inquiry, waited. “I mean, not really.”
I explained that while I’d grown up in a rural area, music had always been a force that pulled me toward other people, but since I’d started writing about it, music appreciation had become a hermetic endeavor. And it made me feel weird. Awkwardness around other writers was another sour irony—these are people I should’ve felt at home with. I told him I was tired of discourse, that I wanted to enjoy music with friends again (and even start playing it again), that I wanted to do interviews instead of reviews, that I wanted to pay more attention to local bands—that I wanted to focus on music as something made by and for people, not just as an obscure, faceless art to be auditioned by writers in a social vacuum. He, in some part, agreed. Both of us, though, seemed stunned by the interaction.
For three months I wrote an interview column on this website called Hi!, which I enjoyed more than almost any other writing I’d done. Most of the time, talking to musicians actually helped me make sense of their records; it made the overall experience richer. (In the same way most dog owners resemble their dogs in vague but extremely resonant ways, musicians reflected their art.) I swallowed my blind snobbery toward the idea of “Brooklyn music” and started going to shows in my neighborhood, started talking to the bands I wrote about, and even started keeping a correspondence with them. Some of them are nice people! Some are not. I realized that having “a scene” can be a wonderful thing; it’s not that I found instant camaraderie—not at all—but, well, interfacing with human beings, however shallow or impenetrable or narrow, is still more gratifying than the bloodless internet.
Does this mean I stopped being a critic this year? Maybe. Which is fine. It’s true that I felt more indulgent this year, like I spent more energy pursuing idiosyncratic interests and forcing them on anyone who would listen. I stopped feeling compelled to listen to the same records everyone did, all the time. Not to say that I had any great liberation or breakthrough—I’m not here to tell you about indonesian jaipong or contemporary Mexican pop or how country music really is where it’s happening—but, it’s just to say that I didn’t reflexively listen to the new Sunset Rubdown record because lots of other people did. Because I didn’t like the last Sunset Rubdown record, so why bother.
The rote line that criticism is about disengagement always rang hollow, and this year I figured out why: nobody is disengaged at heart, and nobody wants to be. Our appreciation of music—as listeners, writers, readers of writing, and even participants—is completely voluntary, so there’s no reason to do it otherwise, unless you have some sort of pathology (and I don’t want to know about that).
I suppose that it’s my opportunity—or obligation, maybe—to be tearful and proclamatory about Stylus. I was never good at signing yearbooks. I remember talking with founder and editor Todd Burns about a month after I started writing. “I sort of have a policy of not hanging out with writers,” he said. But over the past couple of years we’ve become fairly close friends. And we don’t only talk about music or movies or trivia; we actually share sensibilities. We can just be two people, passing time. I can say the same about Alfred Soto, another writer here. Our conversations safely and swiftly moved from the realm of Steely Dan into relationships into a deep mutual understanding of how we see the world. He’s the witty, gay Cuban-American older brother I never had. And he has a dirty sense of humor. When people ask about Todd, or Alfred, or bands in my neighborhood, I’m less inclined to say, “We write for a website” or “I wrote a column about them”; now I say, “Oh, Alfred? He’s a friend of mine.”