From the Cradle to the Rave

at some point I discovered that I was a music critic, and (this is the important part) I also discovered that I really liked it. I liked diving into as much music as I could take, trying to get a grip on it, and getting to write, to explain not only the beauty of what I had heard, but also the significance of it. I've felt at my best with a stereo quaking and a keyboard in front of me, but that significance issue has nagged at me. What was the significance? Is it just that we need art in our world to have a rich life, and my job is to sort that out for people, to direct them? But that's pretty basic and pretentious all at once, and neither adjective describes an endeavor that I should be spending hours per week (often per day) doing. I'm not sure I want to keep at it.

Having a kid throws all that pondering into another level. My first child was born this past August, and in between waves of overwhelming joy and sleeplessness-induced nausea, I’ve been taking stock. Never coherently, really—I've not had enough free time to do anything as intense as cohering thoughts—but steadily enough to make me question my avocation (and potential vocation).

One level of concern struck long ago: how would I manage time? The demands of writing and editing for various publications while working 40 corporate hours a week eats into that free time, and that free time needs to be filled with baby care, whether the necessary diaper changes or the optional (yet essential) reading/holding/rattle-shaking time. I owe it not only to my daughter but also to my wife to be present.

Sweet, isn't it? But nothing brings clichés to hand faster than the fundamental experiences of life. I want to be a good family man, but I want to be a full person, too, so I have to decide how much weight to give something that doesn't pay bills, takes up space, and saps my energy—all while filling an urgent need. Do I want to teach my kid that I'd rather work than spend time with her? Or do I choose, instead, to teach her that it's okay to give your life over to the 9-to-5 even if it means giving up? And does that just mean teaching her to be an adult?

Screw that, is my initial reaction. I'm here to live a beautiful life, and I need music for that. I need Daltrey screaming and Dylan in tangles and Coltrane's favorite things. I need the smooth groove of sex and the quiet statement of loneliness and the power chords of hope. But do I need to spend so much of myself on it?

Because music is essentially unimportant. It doesn't save lives or fight for justice or make poverty history or anything else, no matter how much it might claim to. I mean, it might help each of us get through another long day, but that doesn’t require critical analysis any more than you need an anatomy degree to know that a kiss feels good. I don't have any better of a relationship to music now than I did ten years ago, when I'd lie on my back in the dark, lost in Quadrophenia and praying for rain, without a clue who Link Wray is. And I sincerely doubt that anyone got more out of Black Sheep Boy or Cast of Thousands because I told them what I was hearing. And I really don't think people's lives have been changed because I pointed out the political and emotional shortcomings of that second TV On The Radio album.

Right now, though, I'm not worried about the lives of people as much as am about one little girl's life. Is she better off because I spent time pulling out the various memes in the new Princess Superstar disc? No. Am I living the life I want her to lead when I click on's "donate to the Red Cross" button and then forget about Hurricane Katrina while I check on the used prices of some grime CDs? Is practicing my cursing while listening to David Allan Coe a good way to walk out my faith?

Music is unimportant.

A few weeks ago I watched Schindler's List for the first time. If you haven't seen it, I'm not giving anything away when I say that it's sad. So I cried a little (there are some children in it) and I got to thinking about two potentially conflicting drives in my life. Ever since I started increasingly amateur Holocaust studies in college, I've had an unfunneled outrage about the US handling of genocide since World War II (like how we've let it go on almost continuously and usually unchecked since we first said, "Never again"). Since I don't really have time, I can’t stop worldwide genocide. I listen to and write about music. That eats into my genocide prevention time.

I'll let you into my new secret, though: it's the best way I can fight right now. Not genocide, necessarily, but if I find an album that I think would make an ethnic-cleanser stop and consider his actions, I'll probably try to bring it to your attention. I just mean "fight" in general. There are too many statuses I'd like to change (like those of people, animals, and the earth itself as three small ones I’d like to start with), and too many wrongs I'd like to right (no stone-faced absurdism in this parenthetical note). So I'll just fight in general, on the side of music.

And you know what? I don't have to tell you why I've decided it's important. It feels like it's important, it makes me stride into life better, and that has to be good for the world. That's enough.

But I'll tell you anyway (and I'll tell you like I'm brimming with confidence when really I'm scared that it's all blowing past me while I've got my head up a I-IV-V's ass). Life can be a little rough. Life can throw things at you like hurricanes, and cancer, and paralyzed step-sisters, and parents who get divorced for a second time, and factories closing down, and all that and all that and then some. So you can shoulder a burden and drop your passions, or you can resist. Music is my resistance.

I'm determined to live fully, and I want my daughter to understand what she can get out of life. I want her to experience the joy of building a soundtrack to your life, and the relief of the release in a song. And I know she's going to learn that art has value; whether she loves music or painting or a low crossover doesn't matter, as long as she can let whatever moves her work it out.

Because, yes, music is unimportant, and music criticism even more so. But there isn't much that isn't, and that includes most of life. We have to take our meaning where we find it, and accept our beauty for what it is. Don't look at your screen like that—I told you the clichés were coming. Music and writing are my passions, so I have to keep chasing them down. Music is unimportant, but loving it isn't.

So that's why I'm rationalizing this music stuff while running from computer to crib.

Of course, I've nearly forgotten about my wife.

By: Justin Cober-Lake
Published on: 2005-11-01
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