October 22, 2013

What Music Is


Probably my mom.

From the title of this piece, you might think I’m going to tell you what music is.

That was misleading. I’m so sorry.

I don’t know.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure that out. It’s something that I can’t create very well, as anyone who has heard my clumsy fingers find their way around a fret board can attest to. It’s something that keeps me up at night, shifting my pulse around like I’m its plaything, making me stare out into the wild quiet of the night like a woman possessed. It has brought me through some hard times, helped me punctuate the good times. It lives on my record shelves, in my pocket, buried under my skin until my skin gives way to eternal earth.

It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had. We’ve had break ups, like the weeks when I just couldn’t handle any more melody and I left it briefly for a thrilling stint with Radiolab and The Moth. But we always come back together.

But here is what it isn’t.

Music isn’t something you own. I mean, pay for music. Seriously, pay for music. You pay for all that expensive, stupid juice you drink, so fucking pony up for something that will keep you sane during your ridiculous cleanse.

But it’s not yours. It’s also not entirely the artist’s. That is the great mystery of song. Bach died, Elliott Smith died, Kurt Cobain died and also probably got sick of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I bet Marcy Playground is like, “Please don’t make us play ‘Sex and Candy’ again, we write other songs.” But people keep connecting to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Sex and Candy” and XO and Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, which means that the songs have their own lives, which is the most transcendent and magical thing any of us frail mortals could hope for- a creation of flesh that does not exist in the physical world can live beyond our sputtering hearts. You are a caretaker of the song, it is there for you when you need it, but it will spirit away after you are done with it, and you can’t kill it. Not even with a Pitchfork.

That’s the sticky part with this over informed world- we process information so quickly and offer opinions about a millisecond after that. We decide what we like, what we don’t like, and then absorb it into our “personal brand.”

We editorialize and criticize and insert ourselves into something that doesn’t have a form to grab onto. In this world, knowledge is currency. Which often translates into finding a band “first,” listening to them “first,” and then watching their rise in popularity with a wolf’s eyes, waiting for the moment to broadcast your primacy of knowledge.

As we get older, being part of a faceless mass of people becomes a deep, shapeless fear.  We want to fit in, but stand out. Lead, but disappear when we want to.  Technology hasn’t invented this, but it’s made it harder to avoid. How to avoid feeling like what you love has been mass produced and handed to you and a million other drab, grasping hands? How to avoid feeling like the album you listened to when you were spent and wasted and curled up in the bottom of the empty bathtub is also the soundtrack for the sixteen year old at the prom learning to dry hump for the first time.?

You can’t avoid it. Embrace it.

Don’t be afraid to let what you love go and become an entirely different experience for someone you might not like, someone who you may have nothing else in common with. That’s gorgeous and fundamentally human, to share what we love and watch it change without our consent. To allow a song you heard three years ago to explode white hot out of your illusion of control, reaching people with whom you have never had a conversation. How incredible. When I hear words like “bandwagoners” I flinch. Not only because “bandwagoner” isn’t a word, but because it’s so unthinkably silly to judge someone’s relationship to music based on a timeline. I’m a Beatles bandwagoner. My mom was, too, in 1966 when she saw them live in St. Louis along with a million other teenagers losing their goddamn minds. You tell her she loves the Beatles less than someone who saw them play in Hamburg with Pete Best, and she will cut you with a first pressing of Abbey Road. Let me list for you all the bandwagons I’m on:

-Neil Young

-Townes Van Zandt


-Elliott Smith

-The Beach Boys

-Patsy Cline

-Depeche Mode

-Basically anyone who released an album before 2004, because I was pretty occupied with writing fanfiction and listening to Nickel Creek.

-Nickel Creek

I’m so unspeakably bored with the argument that finding a band first makes you a more authentic fan. Or bands that stay right under the nose of success without being sucked up its golden nostrils are somehow more pure.

I’m not here to tell you that your music taste makes you special, because it doesn’t. You didn’t discover anything, you don’t hold it, and you don’t get to keep it. And the fact that I was listening to Lucius’ debut album Wildewoman and feeling dazzling, tragic things about my own life, and then saw that a teenager who tweeted about One Direction not three tweets prior also loves that album, made me just absolutely ecstatic. Who knows what she hears when she listens to the same track? Maybe nothing at all similar to what I do. And just because I’m a huge bummer who spends too much time gazing out rain slicked windows doesn’t mean I’m more legitimate as a music fan.  Maybe I should stop buying into her personal brand and remember that she’s a complex human, and when she holds that trembling sound in her, she’s experiencing something that it is my job to protect as someone who also respects pitch and breath and what it can do to you.

What Music Is:

I still don’t know. But I want more people to let it slip through their ears and their dazed, screen smudging fingers so that we can all find out.

And on your house I wish two million rabid teenagers liking all your favorite, saddest songs, so that you may know what it is like to Truly Love.


Hit us up.

  1. Melissa #

    This is beautiful. I could not agree more.

  2. Matt #

    I Loved it Kathleen. Besides being insightful and incredibly generous, this piece embodies something each of us have felt for a song we love. The song captures for us a moment in time. It carries with it that moment our entire life. Each time we hear it. And you’re right, effetism is the antithesis of the creativity required to bring a new song out of the artist. I would only add to your observation that the artist is both blessed and cursed with his song. They surely grow weary of imbuing the song with renewed feeling every night. But the artist alone is able to experience that first hearing with everyone. It is this sharing that kindles the energy the artist thrives on. People often hear bands exclaim how much the audience made the show. But the comment is neither hackneyed nor trivial. The band thrives on that shared moment when someone hears the song and responds. Becomes a fan. Shares some of themselves. This is the energy lifting both the artist and the audience for that brief shared moment. And then it is gone forever, except in their shared memory. “You’re only as good as your last show” — Jerry Garcia

  3. Very cool piece.

  4. Kathleen, this is an amazing piece! Beautiful, funny, and totally on point. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Jenny #


    Thank you for addressing this issue. I have felt some of the ugly “hey I saw these guys play a basement 3 years ago, so I totes love them more than YOU” feelings, but like you said, how silly! This can only be true for a handful of local bands, meaning *I* am the bandwagoner to every other band out there. That’s just how it works!

    Love your writing. More, please.

  6. I don’t disagree, at all, with the list of artists you called out in this post. However, I do believe more genres should be considered. How about grunge rock (Nirvana anyone)? Or Hip Hop (Tupac, Biggie Smalls)? Or even techno/electronica (Tiesto, Darude, etc.)? Not that I’m arguing the list b/c you can’t go wrong with Patsy Kline or Depeche Mode! That said, some of us strange birds have very varied tastes:-)

  7. This is a wonderful example of what music means to different people.

  8. You hit the pot Kathleen! Whatever type of music you listen to and get affected by is totally different for each one of us. As they say, different strokes for different folks.

  9. You make some really good points! I suspect that music isn’t something you can nail down with an airtight definition. It’s different to each of us. I also love that you pointed out that none of us have any right to try to label others as “bandwagoners” since we’re all one to some extent. I also find it funny that there are now so many people jumping on the “hipster” bandwagon trying to claim they did or knew things before others did, but by so doing become what they claim to hate :)

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