Thanks to everyone who showed up at Quimby’s to listen to me read, and pretended like you didn’t notice all the porn comics on the shelves around you. The literary crowd was all at Printer’s Ball that night, so the crowd was sparse, save for all of you. So thanks for filling up those seats.
Thanks also to the grey-haired gentleman who, as I came off stage, asked me to take his iPod and create a playlist for him. That was a treat, though I usually prefer to have 3-4 hours to spend quality time with such a task. And props to the two dudes who stopped looking at the porn comics to listen to what I had to say.
And thanks to Kelsey who gave me a Colt 45 before I started. Oh and asking me in the first place.
For those of you who couldn’t make it, I’m posting the piece here. Enjoy.
The other day, I installed something called Last.FM on my computer.
For those that don’t know, Last.FM is a sort of social networking software that constructs a profile of you, based on what songs you listen to on your computer. This same profile is then published on its website for the entire world to see. As far as Last.FM is concerned, you are what you listen to.
After your install Last.FM, it scans your iTunes and other audio software to come up with a list of your most recently played tracks, favorite artists, etc. My top five most played artists ended up looking like this:
1 Johnny Cash
2 The Who
3 The Police
4 James Brown
5 The Faces
I was surprised to see Johnny Cash at number one but certainly not disappointed. It was now clear to all that I liked his music, and I didn’t need one of those t-shirts of him flipping the bird to prove it.
Most of the rest of that list was pretty respectable, and dead-on. The songs of The Who, The Police and James Brown are practically a part of my DNA, and I have a tendency to get drunk on whiskey and crank up The Faces, so that makes sense as well. Last.FM and I both agreed on who I was, and what I liked.
The problem began the other day when I turned on the iTunes party shuffle, which is guaranteed to play the lousiest music you own. For people who pride themselves on having good taste in music, it’s the equivalent of your parents pulling out a book of naked baby pictures in front of your Prom date. Sure enough, less than five songs in I was hearing “Into The Void” by KISS, a song that’s so awful, it doesn’t show up until Disc 5 in their boxed set. Two songs later, it got worse: my apartment filled with the sounds of Aersosmith’s “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.”
Normally, this would be a minor annoyance. But with Last.FM humming in the background, my heretofore stellar music taste could now be called into question by the entire Internet. Sadly, there was no “I was listening to this ironically” button.
(As an aside, there’s no such thing as listening to a song “ironically.” If you are alone, and purposely cue up a song and hit play? You like that song. Irony doesn’t enter into it. And the same thing goes for mustaches.)
I quickly discovered I could delete songs from my Last FM profile, and couldn’t right-click fast enough to clear those two musical atrocities. I bailed on the party shuffle and cued up Carole King’s Tapestry so I could have a few minutes to think and not feel betrayed.
There are few things one can do that cultivate more self-intimacy than listening to music alone. No matter what the world tells you about yourself or whatever façade you try to present to the world, you can be secure in the knowledge that no judgment is being passed over you while you cue up songs from Kansas, Men at Work, or Sheryl Crow’s latter albums (her earlier stuff still holds up).
I realized that Last.FM now had me putting all those private moments I’ve kept to myself on display for the world to see. I might be fine with the Internet knowing I love Johnny Cash, but I’d prefer it never found out I own not one, but two Kylie Minogue albums.
After thinking about it some more, I realized that ever since high school, I’ve defined myself by music.
When I started dating my high school girlfriend, she would get countless notes from me filled with nothing but song lyrics. It would literally be a piece of paper upon which I’d written the title of the song, the name of the band and then the lyrics. I wouldn’t even bother to write “Dear Colleen” or “Hey baby, I heard this song and it made me think of you.” We had a rather rocky relationship, and broke up and got back together numerous times. I don’t remember much about the details behind most of those numerous breakups, except for one. Why? Because as we were breaking up, the song “I Know I’m Losing You” by The Temptations was playing in the background. Sure, it was painful. But you don’t get better timing than that, and when I tell the story of our Big Breakup, that’s the detail I use to illustrate it. Even though it probably wasn’t our Big Breakup at all, but more likely Three Breakups Before The Big Breakup.
It was this kind of musical myth-making that I started to cultivate in college.
The first time I had sex, was with a girl named Angela while we were listening to Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell album. Anyone who has ever heard this album knows that it doesn’t exactly create the ideal backdrop for losing one’s virginity. It’s akin to saying that Def Leppard’s Hysteria was playing when you had your First Communion. To be honest, I didn’t have much choice in the musical selection that evening. We started getting down to business in her dorm room, and I hadn’t known in advance that this was going to happen so I hadn’t thought to bring any “mood music.” She had a few tapes, most of which were lousy. The only one that seemed palatable to me was Bat Out Of Hell. Perhaps I thought the ten minute title track that led the album would be loud enough to keep the people in the hallway from overhearing the sounds of our ecstasy. If so, I admire the moxie I had that led me to think the experience was going to last much more than ten seconds, nevermind ten minutes.
A few years later, I attempted to rewrite this portion of my sexual history by claiming that it was not Meat Loaf, but Marvin Gaye who was the soundtrack to my first fumbling attempts at lovemaking. Of course, the first time I said this I was pretty drunk, so what actually came out of my mouth was “The first time I had sex was with Marvin Gaye.”
So there it is: rather than stick to the truth of a situation, I chose to describe my entrance into manhood as being accompanied by a soul legend, rather than an obsese, sweaty screamer prone to Wagnerian musical excess.
People who define themselves by the music they listen to, worry about what Last FM says about them, while people who don’t, have nothing to fear.
The thing is, I listen to my share of “bad” music. The very first live show I ever went to was The Monkees Reunion tour in 1987, with “Weird Al” Yankovic opening for them. I have, on occasion, psyched myself up by listening to songs by The Alan Parsons Project. And, swear to God, I will knock you to the ground for saying anything bad about “Sussudio” by Phil Collins. So I
don’t exactly have an impeachable record of coolness when it comes to music.
Let me be clear: people define themselves by the music they listen to, aren’t really interested in making sure their taste in music is seen as particularly cutting edge. It has more to do with tracking your personality or the personality of others by how they relate to music. Deleting those Aerosmith and KISS songs from my Last.FM profile was just like telling people I lost my virginity to Marvin Gaye. So to speak. I didn’t do it because those songs are terrible. They are, but that’s not why it bothered me. I just didn’t want to claim them as my own. They weren’t part of who I considered myself to be.
I know there are people out there who don’t use musical taste as a means of discovering things about other people. Whereas me? I am sure I can tell everything about you by asking you which Beatles album is your favorite. I know whether or not we’re going to get along by your preference for either the German or American version of “99 Luftballoons.” Or whether you even have a preference at all. I’m also a firm believer in the notion that you can tell how much fun someone might be at a party by whether or not he or she can sing the chorus of “Jungle Love” by The Time.
I know there are other people out there like me. In fact, it’s given me an idea for a speed-dating service called MixDate. You will sit down at a table across from someone, and they will hand you a CD of their favorite songs, and you will hand them one of yours. And then you’ll get up, and move to the next table. After you listen to all the CDs, you tell MixDate which ones you liked the best, and they’ll tell you who liked yours. If there’s a match, you trade phone numbers. I guarantee this would be the most successful dating service of all time.