Column: Broken records: The seduction of repetition
Oct. 28, 2011
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
One of the coolest parts of living in our generation is that we get to experience the 21st-century technology revolution while still having some attachment to the last millennium.
I mean, sure, I was only alive for nine and a quarter years last century, but I think it’s neat how we got to experience the dénouement of physical media firsthand. We remember the sound of dial-up Internet and the feel of floppy discs. We can, if only vaguely, recall listening to cassettes and buying our first CD. Mine was Smash Mouth’s Astro Mouth, which, fun fact, just barely beat out the soundtrack to "Pokémon: The First Movie." But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We post-Gen X-ers (dubbed Generation Me by Jean Twenge, but I’m not quite sure that’s been accepted as standard) also get the honor of living in a time of general facility. In the Y2K-era Fight Club, Brad Pitt vents, “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.”
Not to be a drama king or anything, but I’d say that’s pretty applicable to life in the ‘10s. (It’s been 22 months. Let’s call this decade by its proper name, people.) Sex, Twitter, Ke$ha — we’re all about the quick fix. Not because we lack quixotic zeal, but because when your most consistent struggle in life is closing Firefox so you can start your homework, you tend to gravitate toward anything that will spark a feeling. One of those feelings, while not quite as publicized and criticized as our craving for instant gratification, is nostalgia, which brings me back to Smash Mouth.
This summer, in the midst of a post-work laziness coma, I felt an inexplicable urge, origin unknown, to listen to Smash Mouth. If you’ve blacked out the ‘90s already, here’s a little Smash Mouth refresher: The San Jose band hovered somewhere between grunge-ska and one-hit-wonderdom, dropping singles that were typically the easiest to get stuck in one’s head and the least likely to be welcome there (i.e. “Walking on the Sun,” “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” and, of course, “AllStar”). And, for God-knows-what reason, they were my first favorite band. If you still have the fortitude to read this music column after the disclosure of that fact, I A) applaud you and B) test you once more with this little nugget: I still like Smash Mouth.
Sure, I know I shouldn’t; one listen to “Come On, Come On” is evidence enough of that. Yet, as discovered by this spontaneous summer Smash sesh, the act of sending sonic waves produced by this band in the general direction of my ears still releases positive vibes within my typically music-snobbish being.
I think a small part of the disgusted look that is undoubtedly resting on your face at the moment can probably be attributed to the fact that this group’s radio hits generally gave an unfavorable perception of its grating-to-gratifying ratio — but again, only a small part. Any other affinity I might still have for Smash Mouth can simply be attributed to the fact that when I listen to Astro Lounge, even 12 years later (obligatory “Damn, I’m old,” interjection), I’m still transported back to to a time when my homework load was limited to 20 minutes a night plus the occasional science fair, the St. Louis Rams’ main output was still touchdowns and not depression and my only long-term goal was taking down the Elite Four. That is to say: I blame/thank nostalgia.
My main thought process when revisiting Astro Lounge was approaching the music from the mind frame of a music critic. You see, as fantastic as the new M83 album is, for example, it still cannot provide me with such cheap, mesmerizing stimulation. Why is that?
I’ve written a handful of album reviews, and a phrase I often find myself employing is, “Gets better with multiple listens.” This can be a testament to the intricacy of an album; I truly believe there are great albums like Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion that desire, require and thrive upon multiple listens. But this phrase can also be the obvious realization that most music sounds better on the fifth listen than the first. It’s kind of like how you hated that Katy Perry song the first time you heard it, but two weeks later it was totally your jam. Repetition disguises suckiness. And if my Smash Mouth experiment can be extrapolated from, that disguise has serious lingering power.
I suppose it raises the question: since we obviously can’t change our pasts, should we avoid taking pleasure from probable shitfest that is what we listened to when we were 9? I mean, maybe, but I doubt there’s many of you reading this that still are having a hard time getting past that ‘NSYNC fad.
The real motif on trial here is comfort. If there’s one message this column has been somewhat developing, it’s this: The music we listen to, as individuals and as a society, is more telling than we’d generally like to admit. And what music is telling us here, what it’s really exposing, is that comfort, repetition, nostalgia, all these things are seductive. Retreading your tracks is easy, and it feeds us notions of satisfaction. It just feels right. But it’s deceptive. Your tracks might not be everything you make them out to be, be they the boring everyday routine you’ve settled for or that band from eighth grade that still just gets you.
In our world of instant gratification, comfort can seem like the obvious path to tread, but it’s often just a familiar echo that grows weaker with each iteration.
Explore. Find your song. Make sure it’s one that bears repeating.