Putting Down Tracks, or,
Music, Ants, and the Death of All We Love (h2so4 14)
There was a time when Peter Gabriel spoke directly to me. When I was sixteen and newly licensed to drive, I would roll the family car in circles around the neighborhood and listen-rewind-listen-rewind-listen to him singing Biko. I remember being so stirred by the song one rainy day that I actually had to pull over. With wipers as my metronome and thunder enhancing the Radio Shack bass (its so great how all surroundings comply to your personal narrative when youre young), I whispered along with Peter, Biko, Biko, Bi-cause, Biko as my eyes and windows misted over. Oh Biko!
But now, fifteen years later, the song just makes me writhe with pain. It nauseates me not because its a particularly bad tune or because it recalls those sweetlyembarrassing high-school days of easy-baked politics and Nagel nostrils drawn with solitary right eyes (because lefts were too hard). No, the reason Biko feels like a bite on tinfoil is this: The number of times you can listen to any given song is finite, and once you burn through the allotted number of plays, it becomes irretrievably unlistenable.
Of course some songs have a shorter shelf life than others: That Four Non-Blondes song, for instance, has about 1.5 plays in it. Dock of the Bay has fifteen, and the saturation point of Arethas R-E-S-P-E-C-T is maybe twenty-five. It may be the most amazing song youve ever heard, with an intricate melody and resonating lyrics that you cant possibly imagine ever growing out ofwhy, the CD hasnt been back in its case since you bought it! But the day will come when you go back to the well, looking to get all pumped as you dress/road trip/make out/party, and out of nowhere, the song just sickens you. Your ears actually feel tired when you try to listen to it. Your brain feels as though its gagging.
Its more than just songs. Sometimes the entire oeuvre of a musical artist wears thin all at once. I was a senior in high school when The Beatles became unstomachable. Sophomore year in college, reggae turned to poison. The heart of my burning love for New Wave musicwhich started in the early 80s, endured through the dark early and mid-90s (when the movement fell out of almost everyone elses grace), and was alive and kick-dancing like Molly Ringwald when the 80s made their inevitable retro comeback in the late 90sonlymanaged to stop beating about a year ago.
And its more than just music. Catch phrases (Its all fun and games until someone puts an eye out! I could tell you, but Id have to kill you! Wassaaaap!) andpop cultural references (sleestacks, wondertwin powers, ancient Chinese secrets) can go to seed as well. Theyre funny, funny, funnyhahaha!and then suddenly, no. Not so funny. And outfits! All at once your favorite, timeless sweater, belt, skirt, boots, bra, cute top, handbag, or nurse uniform is pushed to the back of the closet. Or raisin bran. A staple since second gradesuddenly tastes like, well, raisin bran, and it never passes your lips again.
Personal anecdotes also expire. My cross-dressing uncle (aka ankle) at Thanksgiving episode; the I am not erotic, tongue- distracted lady story; and the Im a docent in my own life theoryonce they were lovingly recounted with ohmygod enthusiasm. Now the stories are like gum chewed past its flavor, and I cant stand to hear my voice telling them.
Why is it, then, that so many of our favorite songs, musicians, yukups, and stories eventually start rotting? I think the answer can be found, hold on, along the path of an ant trail. An ant pilgrimage begins with a lonely scouter who aimlessly bustles around the sink, dish scrubby, counter top, and finally finds the juicy trash can with its chicken parts, butter wrappers, and other anty yumyums. An hour later, theres an inch-thick line black with ants heigh-hoing directly over the counter and through the wall. Theprocess of transforming the directionless fumbling of one ant into an efficient army of ants marching in a column formation that leadsdirectly from point A to point B is explained by Richard Feynman. An impromptu experiment, which involved an afternoon following ants with colored pencils in his bathtub, revealed that once a wandering ant finds food, it takes its booty back home. Since it doesnt exactly know the way, it meanders a bit. The next ant gets to the food by following this kooky trail (led, Feynman figured, by a special scent or chemical emitted by a happy, well-fed ant), but as it races along the trail, it cuts a few corners. The next ant follows the second ants trail, eliminating even more detours. And by the timehundreds of ants make the pilgrimage, the trail is perfectly straight.
The first time we listen to a song, we are like the ground- breaking ant. The second, third, fourth time through, we become aware of previously unidentified lyrics. Soon the flurry of discoveries and detours reaches a peak popcorn state, where kernels fire right on top of each otherthis is the insatiable phase, when we shout I LOVE THIS SONG! and hit play again and again. But eventually the period of exploration comes to an end, and the song settles to a flat line, provoking no new thought whatsoever.
Same with anecdotes. Each time I cart one out, it gets another layer of polish. Eventually, it becomes a piece,with entire sections repeated word-for-word, inflections and gestures identical. And my brain, deprived of new stimulus after all the refinement and repetition, begins to ingest itself. To preserve my sanity, the story is retired to special occasion status, where its delivered only upon request and even then comes out only in choppy, bored, sing-sigh-y sentences furnished with nothing but the essential facts.
Of course there is such a thing as a classic, something that seems to live forever. I will always love McDonalds hamburgers and Sara Lee banana cake because they were special good girl treats when I was little. Their taste, linked as it is to such fine feelings, never grows old. And while you can OD on some authors (Bukowski, Vonnegut, Blume), really good books (Pride and Prejudice, Catch 22) hold up time after time, as do movies like Singinin the Rain, The Philadelphia Story, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
These are exceptions because they trigger particularly powerful nostalgia or because theyre especially high-quality and are so riddled with subtlety and layers of meaning that our minds continue to find new detours to explore. But I suspect that these gems, too, lose their flavor eventuallythey just happen to be so well crafted that they outlast our life spans.
As medicine improves and the nutrients in food become increasingly available, however, were living longer and longer. And, thanks to techadvances like the internet, things are increasingly easy to get ahold of: We can listen to our favorite MP3s, for instance, at work, home, and in the car without even having to go out of our way to buy the CD. Plus were getting insanely materialistic, for all kinds of reasons (including, perhaps, a chicken/egg situation where the sudden death of our favorite music, clothing, and food causes us to cast about for something new), and more and more of us are joining the Early Adapter group, throwing away yesterdays latest to make room for todays hothothot must-have.
Evidence of the presence of these three factorslonger lifespans, increased accessibility, and increased consumerismin our lives can already be seen in the ever-shortening cycles of retro (that is so last week!). Soon, as the process of mining, enjoying, and discarding of even our previously untoppled classicsDickens, Picasso, Bowieis inevitably reduced to a matter of seconds, well have nowhere to turn but back... to the future!
Yay, time travel!