If you can believe it, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was controversial when it was first released in 1986, 25 years ago. “Graceland” was innovative. “Graceland” was inspired by collaboration with — or, as some claimed, cribbed from — South African musicians. Was it cultural colonialism?
This whole debate is very foreign to me, because when I listen to “Graceland,” all I hear is dad music. It’s warm, soft and unthreatening, like a bear hug; Paul Simon makes me feel like a kid again. “Graceland” is certainly a masterpiece, and yet it borders on easy listening. But wait! I love easy listening. Sade, the queen of Latin fusion in 1984, is my role model. I don’t care how many adults tell me that it’s music their own parents listened to.
Across the pond in 1986, a different sound was taking over. That summer, the college rock band the Smiths released their seminal album, “The Queen Is Dead,” to much acclaim. If Paul Simon is parental, then the Smiths are relentlessly adolescent. Their songs are anchored by Morrissey’s diffident and petulant lyrics and Johnny Marr’s lackadaisical guitar melodies. Since their heyday, the music has found its way into the hearts of millions of lonely teens, mine included. To parents, Morrissey’s seductive self-indulgence is just noise.
And in Olympia, Wash., around the same time as Sade’s ascension, Beat Happening was perfecting its first release. Ringleaders of the nascent West Coast indie pop scene, the band was explicitly anti-corporate and amateurish. Instead of relying on session players and global tradition, Beat Happening was interested in forging its own raucous, messy, childish path.
College rock and easy listening established themselves as polar opposites throughout the 1980s. But because of the music’s longevity and the changing ways in which music is shared, today it’s standard for some fans to like all four bands and tons of genres. The old generic battles are over. In 1986, it would have been impossible to listen to college rock and easy listening back-to-back. But on my iTunes, I can make a playlist consisting of “Beat Happening-Sade-the Smiths-Paul Simon” and even throw in some Snoop Dogg or Passion Pit if I want to. Eclecticism has never been so easy.
Have you ever heard anyone describe his or her musical taste as “eclectic”? It’s losing popularity, but it used to be a pretty convenient way to say, “I like indie rock and socially conscious rap.” Now, that statement means almost nothing — a love of rap (and not just the socially conscious stuff) is de rigueur for any serious music fan. If your tastes aren’t “eclectic,” chances are you’ve missed out on at least 80 percent of the last five years’ best music.
It’s a sad fact that no matter how much music you listen to, you’ll never hear even a tiny fraction of the great stuff that’s out there. How you react to that statement depends on whether you are a listener or an obsessive. If you just listen to music, there’s nothing inherently troubling about the fact that you can’t have it all — you probably aren’t listening to everything that’s at your disposal now. But the compulsions of the music obsessive have radically changed since the advent of the MP3. The old genre distinctions mean nothing; if a song is good, it’s good, regardless of the record label. And all that music is out there, for free if you want it. You just need to spend hours and hours downloading and organizing and listening and blogging.
But you really can never have it all. You can never have even a good enough grasp to call yourself an expert because the landscape changes so frequently. Illegal downloading and the iPod age might have destroyed the music industry, but the results haven’t necessarily been to the benefit of the fans. The ever-expanding memory on your computer and the ever-expanding access to every recording ever makes being thorough impossible. If you ever find yourself looking back and wondering what music from the past you should listen to, the answer is easy: all of it. But it’s getting harder and harder to keep on saying that. Eventually I’ll run out of space. If not in my computer, in my heart.