Perfect From Now On excerpt

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Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life
Simon & Schuster, 2007
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EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE

A partial list of things music has made me do: fly overseas at considerable expense to see a live performance by a band I no longer liked, nurture a crush on a Goth chick way out of my league, nurture a crush on an alternachick way out of my league, write a love letter to a German woman made up entirely of lyrics from my favorite synth band, reconsider fast friendships, get ticketed for doing 82 in a 55, drive around a remote area of England looking for a hero’s grave, wear parachute pants without irony, perform the moonwalk in front of a crowded gymnasium, switch college majors, miss a final exam, shoplift (both successfully and unsuccessfully), dive to the bottom of a numbingly cold Scottish pond to retrieve my favorite T-shirt, stab my thumb into the back of a fellow concert attendee’s neck to get closer to the stage, drink too much, lose my voice, stage-dive, cry, and regret. But it wasn’t until I was thirty-three—on a Friday night in April 2004, to be more specific—that I found out exactly how important music was to me.

The evening began like so many others: the twist of a bottle cap, the first sip of beer, the descent of my buttocks into the swivel chair at my desk. My computer, a bulky eMac, still excited me a full year after I purchased it, in large part because it had completely changed the way I listened to music. Converting all of my CDs into searchable digital files had spoiled me. Gone were the days of hauling my carcass up to the wall-mounted CD rack to find the one disc that contained the one song required at a given moment. That song was now available with a click of the mouse—and it could be found while sitting down. Once again I fired up the iTunes program and within seconds a familiar song was dominating my apartment. As I scrolled through more than three thousand songs for the perfect follow-up, the value of iTunes as something other than a tool to organize and burn CDs revealed itself in a bang: play count. How had I failed to scrutinize this ingenious function before? Here in front of me was an unadulterated reckoning of how often I’d listened to each song in my collection since the uploading had begun nearly twelve months before—amazing. The frequency of seemingly uncountable thoughts and actions, such as the number of times I’ve said the word “awesome” or the sheer poundage of pizza I’ve eaten, has tantalized me for years, a desire that grew, most likely, out of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the late 1980s about a guy who arrives in heaven and proceeds to quiz an angel about all sorts of arcane trivia about his life, such as “What’s the two hundredth grossest thing I ever ate?” (The answer: butterscotch pudding with a dead earwig in it.) Play count was offering up information that I wasn’t supposed to have until death. It was a message from God. Or Steve Jobs, which is pretty much the same thing.

Okay, so the message wasn’t divine; it wasn’t even exact. Perusing the incredible totals, I quickly saw the problem. Take Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” The single had been everywhere in recent months, and I had willingly submitted to it like everyone else in my age bracket. According to iTunes, the song, uploaded near the end of 2003, had been played just three times on my computer. Obviously I’d heard it many more times: at parties, on television, over the radio in the car, in a much-distributed Internet clip featuring dancing Peanuts characters, on a local tough’s boom box outside my deli. “Hey Ya!” was inescapable. Exactly how many times I’d heard it was impossible to tell—twenty? forty? But as a new beer was opened, a new rule was considered: whatever play count said was law. The totals were probably only slightly misleading. Very few appealing songs were popping up with the frequency of a “Hey Ya!”—it was an exception, and thus an outlier. Neither the radio nor video channels were major sources of musical entertainment for me anymore. My CD player was brought out infrequently, and I did not own an iPod [note: see footnote 1 below]. Couldn’t nearly everything not heard on the eMac, my primary source of music delivery since my collection was uploaded, be discounted? The stats seemed sacred enough. I chose to run with them.

Not surprisingly, the numbers, in aggregate, confirmed that indie rock is my favorite genre of music; it has been for nearly two decades now. Since I’ll be using that term often here, it could use some clarification—in part because the phrase has become nebulous in this relatively recent era in which Borglike conglomerates have swallowed up labels once considered too insignificant to matter, and also because indie rock may be defined differently depending on whom you ask. Back in the early 1980s, when the term started getting thrown around, things were relatively simple: You were either on an independent label or you weren’t—and if you weren’t, then you probably sucked, at least to die-hard fans of the genre. But then R.E.M. got popular. And Nirvana. So now confusion reigns. Purists might disagree, but I think the term can now safely apply to anything that feels independent, whether published on an obscure label or something insidiously corporate, and it can include songs that many people associate more closely with another of indie music’s many aliases and subgenres: hardcore, postpunk, grunge, shoegazing, lo-fi, emo, and stuff we older sorts used to refer to as college rock or modern rock. Such classifications, as you might expect, can be personal. Most indie aficionados—that moderately large listener base that has always been woefully underserved by mainstream radio and MTV—would probably consider Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill and even Death Cab for Cutie to have retained their credibility after signing with majors. But what about the Smashing Pumpkins? How best to judge the case of Radiohead, which has always been on a major label? And what of Weezer, another major-label lifer—and one, in fact, that seems to be an independent band created in a major-label-funded laboratory experiment? I’ll settle it: They’re all indie.

However the genre is defined, I’m a fan. Well, mostly. Actually, lots of indie rock sucks worse than Dan Fogelberg. And just because I love indie music doesn’t mean that it’s all I listen to or that it’s the only genre that matters. There is value in the Toto song “Hold the Line.” I own every original studio album by Led Zeppelin, including Coda. I will always possess the gene that makes some guys turn their vehicle into Neil Peart’s ninety-nine-piece drum kit whenever Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” comes on. But I’ll get into all that later. What’s at issue here is that, thanks to the play count discovery, my listening habits were now both quantifiable and sortable. It was thrilling even to look at tracks that didn’t rank among my favorites. How many times had I played the Pixies’ “Velouria” in the past year? Twelve times—a manageable once-a-month craving. I had failed to listen to any songs from Soundgarden’s Superunknown other than “Fell on Black Days,” which caused me to rock out unabashedly sixteen times. Songs by old favorites New Order and the Cure were played in the same moderation as those by newer go-tos the Shins and the New Pornographers. Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” (twenty-two listens) ranked ahead of anything by Nirvana, but the average number of times I’d listened to the first eleven songs on Nevermind (5.9 times)[note: see footnote 2 below] greatly exceeded that of the eight songs on Women and Children First (3.8 listens). But obviously this is not the information that blew my mind.

No, what made me reconsider my place in life were the songs at the top of the list when sorted by play count. At 193 listens, the song I had played most often during the previous twelve months was written by a band that most people have never heard of. In fact, the top ten songs—and seventeen of the top twenty (and thirty-five of the top fifty, and sixty-three of the top one hundred)—were all by that same band or its offshoots. The facts told me what I had only just begun admitting to myself: I was obsessed with Guided By Voices.

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[1] I haven’t bought one yet due to chronic laziness and stinginess, and requests for one have gone unfulfilled at the time of this writing. I’m a bit embarrassed about it. Any self-respecting music fan in 2007 should own an iPod, or another portable digital music player, because these devices represent a cultural shift in the way we listen to music. I have noticed, though, that the movement towards the downloadable implies that music is all about, well, the music. Mostly it is, of course, but not entirely. There are elements of the music-listening experience that I would sincerely miss if they ever disappeared for good. The act of storing and organizing CDs, be it in a teetering stack on the floor or alphabetically in a binder, feels necessary: It’s comforting to have physical manifestations of the music you love. I also like flipping through the booklet that first time after a CD is purchased and staring at the cover art and scouring the liner notes to see what mysteries are revealed about various band members: Can they spell? Do they name-check any actors? Are they New Agey? Strangely, I might even miss the humbling process of opening a newly purchased CD, which has been sending me into Sam Kinison-like rages since about 1997, when packagers discovered the perfect conduit for expressing their wickedness: not just the shrink wrap but also that adhesive strip that says PULL on it, and which never comes off in one piece no matter how sturdy your fingernails. These things may well become extinct as more people embrace the practice of downloading full albums and as file sharing becomes more acceptable. (File sharing has led to at least one unintended problem: misidentification. Once, while browsing the old, illegal Napster, I saw a track by a group called the Foop Fighters.) Because of the iPod, CD collections are being viewed as mere redundancies, like when a friend of mine moved all of his music to his computer and then happily trashed his jewel cases, CDs, and liner notes because “they’re annoying.” That kind of clutter will never annoy me, and in fact those tilting helixes of CDs around my apartment are a kind of sculpture. My biggest concern, though, is that iTunes and iPods will make it impossible to listen to albums straight through. Back when I started listening to music, mostly on cassette, it was a chore to constantly rewind and fast-forward to get to the parts of an album I wanted to hear. So I’d usually consent to sit through, say, “I’ll Wait,” when all I really wanted to hear was “Girl Gone Bad.” But now it’s way too easy to skip the songs you don’t want to hear—far easier than in the days of CD players. Why listen to an entire, interminable album when you can so quickly organize your favorite songs using the “My Rating” function or a playlist? You can also search for tracks containing a random syllable, such as “bra” (I get twenty-two selections, including “Your Algebra” by the Shins and “A New England” by Billy Bragg), and that’s diverting. Sometimes, though, it’s important to hear a track like Radiohead’s “Optimistic” the way it was intended: right after the noise that is “Treefingers.” Not that you can’t do that on iTunes or an iPod; it’s just getting harder to consider it. But it would stink if “Treefingers” were permanently deleted from my digital collection. None of this means that I wouldn’t accept a gift of an iPod for, say, my rapidly approaching thirty-seventh birthday. But I’m keeping my CD collection forever, no matter how much cash that record store on St. Mark’s would give me.

[2] The album’s finale, “Something in the Way,” can’t be counted reliably because it features a hidden track: specifically, there is the familiar three minute, forty-eight second song of woe, then 10:03 of silence, and then 6:41 of dial-a-grunge. I’m usually long gone by the time it kicks back in.