The Lost Art of Listening, Part 5: The Case for Nostalgia

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Here’s my great confession: If you were to look in my musical library and scroll through the albums, artists, and playlists I’ve curated over the years, it’s likely you would think I’ve listened to really terrible music.

I was recently nominated to participate in the 10 Days of Influential Albums on Facebook. As the game goes, we were to share with “no explanations, no reviews, only covers.” Not one to play by arbitrary rules set on something as silly as social media, I offered brief explanations and reviews—but this was no small feat. As I suspected, this activity was fraught with insecurity while I asked myself why particular albums influenced me. In fact, I even retracted my Day 1 choice around Day 7 because I was so ashamed of my choice. I just couldn’t handle the pressure!

The weight I felt of having to explain the quilt of my musical taste was great—as I’m no musicologist, how is this even possible? What if these albums aren’t considered “cool?” What if others will think of me as a lesser connoisseur of the musical art form? I had seen older generations share their lists: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell.

My ten albums seemed like molehills next to the Denali that were others’ choices. But while they didn’t change the course of musical history, they’re my musical history.

The two most recent blogs in this series, brilliantly written by Jennifer Trafton and Drew Miller, dance around the subject of nostalgia. Jennifer remembers listening to Amy Grant on cassette, hanging onto every word. Drew longs for the days of the iPod click wheel as a listening tool—both remembering when music consumption was new to our understanding of the world and we had begun our romance with it. Through the years, I’ve harbored deep insecurity and embarrassment about the artists and albums I’ve chosen to take up space in my heart, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t change anything about the experiences that led me to these pieces of art. And to think that we have ultimate and complete control over our musical tastes is a fallacy.

Having not grown up in a musical family, the experience I had in musical feasting was tied to the things that heightened my awareness of the world around me. Early on, this meant the tunes in the musicals I was in, or the songs we sang on the playground (for generational context: my first CDs were Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere and the Titanic soundtrack—and buddy, did we sing them on the monkeybars!). Later, my musical taste was informed by things like concerts and sleepovers, mostly done in the confines of an evangelical church setting. The early 2000s was the height of the marriage between small town America’s youth groups and music label marketing departments. We were the street teams for these “major label” musicians, and the employees at the label depended on us at a time when digital consumption was devouring their budgets.

To think that we have ultimate and complete control over our musical tastes is a fallacy.

Leslie E. Thompson

Music was integral to our youth group gatherings, but it was a Contemporary Christian radio-fed experience (save the bands we found on fringe stages at music festivals like Underoath, Project 86 and Norma Jean). It was heavily censored, largely uninformed about musical prowess, and riddled with guilt. In fact, each year our youth group did what was called a “Sin Burn.” We were invited to bring items that reminded us of our sin, things that kept us from following God, and publicly burn them in a barrel. Remember in Arrested Development when George Michael went to a “CD Burning” party? It was exactly that. In his talk the week before, our pastor always reminded us of the kid who brought his entire CD collection, filled with albums by Korn and Limp Bizkit, and tossed it into the flames (I’m sure he went on to say the kid started listening to bands like Skillet and his life became much holier). We were being taught that unless it was approved by our youth group, it was wrong. To hear this message during formative years of artistic discovery and understanding meant we cut off ties to things that may have given us a deeper, richer, more profound understanding of music and its beauty. If we consider the music we listen to as a companion, I was being taught to make friends selectively and with reservation.

Then there was the question of where to obtain the music once we found it. My generation was caught in a windstorm of confusion with newly available digital avenues, both legal and illegal. Those of us who still had dial-up internet were left buying CDs at garage sales or waiting until Christmas when Santa made his rounds. Pepsi bottle caps sometimes provided us with free iTunes downloads, and the occasional iTunes gift card gave us resources to download the songs we had been wanting to put on our iPods—usually radio singles or individual songs we heard from a friend. These restraints did little to support healthy listening habits. Pair this with an early indoctrination of selective music listening, and my skills in collecting great music were stunted.

I sometimes grieve that my parents were too young to participate in the British Invasion, thereby depriving me of hearing stories about the Beatles. Or that they were too disinterested in the bands that seem to have peppered the vintage vinyl collection of the parents who were raising musical geniuses I have come to admire. But this way of thinking is unfair. My mother kept several brilliant CDs in the car, namely The Best of James Taylor and Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book. Unfortunately, these were in my life at a time when I was being taught to equate music with nothing more than emotional stimulation, and the subtle profundity and maturity of these records were mostly lost on me. But not entirely.

It wasn’t until I started playing at the local coffee shop that I remembered these acoustic guitar-driven albums. So I listened closer and heard James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” You may or may not know that this song provides the perfect backdrop for a particularly poignant moment in the classic movie, Remember the Titans…but I certainly knew. I remembered the emotional depth of the introduction of those words and that melody, and it stuck. Several years later, I dated an older college guy. He listened to writers like Iron and Wine, Damien Rice, and Dennison Whitmer. I would awaken in the morning to lyrics in my Myspace inbox from John Denver, Copeland, and Mae. Emotional connections like these and the “mountaintop experiences” of youth group trips formed a bond between me and those bands/writers which now brings a certain nostalgia and comfort. Revisiting their work is a reminder of simpler days when music listening wasn’t so complicated.

Yes, many of my peers in the music industry would call the bands I listened to “crap.” Many would scoff at the sub-par lyrics, or the simplistic chord progressions. But those were the bands that were at my disposal. They were my friends in moments I felt alone. These artists sat with me virtually as I wept over heartache. Or played in the background as I begged for God to speak to me—oftentimes saying what was needed in that exact moment. They were the bands that inspired me to dream, or to learn how to play a guitar with tiny feeble hands as I went cross eyed from reading the 30-page tab I printed from Ultimate Guitar. As I recall these vulnerable moments in my musical journey, it occurs to me that nostalgia and familiarity are often the real driving forces that develop our musical tastes—perhaps more than anything else. And why should we be embarrassed about that?

I’ve spent most of adulthood intimidated by those who wax poetic about albums that garner critical acclaim, but that I’ve never heard about. Yes, I confess, I was one of the people who tweeted, “Who’s Boney Bear?” when Bon Iver won Best New Artist at the Grammys in 2012. I’ve tried my hardest to be at the forefront of the musical trends. I attempted to retune my ear to DirtyLoops and Snarky Puppy. I gave Lana Del Ray a chance. But after I finished “putting in my time” with these new records over the years, I would always return to my mix CDs filled with Christian pop/punk, emocore, and 90s Christian radio tunes, and a weight would lift off my shoulders as I remembered I didn’t have to try so hard after all.

Musical discovery requires a willingness to have beliefs challenged and expectations dismantled. This is a good thing—it encourages us to be brave when faced with new artistic ideas and perspectives because we may find that we learn to appreciate, love, and even adopt them. However, returning to the music of one’s youth feels like putting on a pair of well-worn shoes. This music fits perfectly in each nook and cranny of our artistic understanding because it’s the exact thing that formed it.

Much of my life has been spent wishing I was someone else, with someone else’s sensibilities and contexts. A person who can name every Beatles record and buys the whole album instead of just the radio single. But, I’m not. And I have to be okay with that.

I can continue to develop my tastes and learn why some things may be more artistically rich than others. But these newfound artists and albums won’t be the ones I’ll play when I seek comfort and understanding from the music that has known me the longest. Much like old friends, my old music knows my doubts, my fears, the things that have haunted me since I first knew how to ask big questions. I’m not ashamed of long-time friends who welcome me with open arms and provide a safe place to land—why should I be ashamed of those artists, musicians, and albums who offer the same?


6 Comments

  1. Shigé Clark

    @s-clark

    This is such a needed read for so many of us here. In this community – so rich with scholars, musicians, artists, and resonators – I know I’ve felt intimidated or embarrassed at my level or type of musical and literary knowledge, even when they’re the best of folks and I know it’s completely unintentional. I love the freedom expressed here to challenge and expand ourselves without ditching or being ashamed of the art that shaped us and lead us to this community in the first place! Thank you for being vulnerable enough to speak to this, Leslie. You’re awesome.

  2. Steve Guthrie

    @steve-guthrie

    I love this, Leslie, and really resonate with it deeply. I also suffer from crappy music taste, and regularly feel embarrassed by my RR peers (and at work, my students) who know all the cool music. Even more than that, I feel deep inner shame when I listen to the “critically acclaimed” stuff and think — “Yeah. . . . OK. But if I’m being really honest, I still dig ‘Foreigner.'” I think your article touches on something really important too, which is that music doesn’t have a single function. The book _Art In Action_ (by the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff) is built around the argument that “artistically, human beings act.” What he means is that songs, stories, images, etc. are human artifacts and tools, and we use them for a variety of purposes. For instance, we use music for worship, for helping a child get to sleep, for background music during a dinner party, for motivation during a work out, and so on. And, the music that functions well for one sort of purpose doesn’t necessarily function well for another. (The music you use to motivate your personal best in the dead lift is probably not the right music to help a toddler get to sleep. The music you listen to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra play at the Schmermerhorn is probably not the most helpful music for corporate worship.) Since the end of the 18th century (however, and largely through the influence of Kant), people have decided that the primary use of music and other “fine arts,” is “aesthetic contemplation” — attending to art to in a focused, contemplative, non-participative way, the way we would in a concert hall, when listening to an orchestra, or in an art gallery when looking at an exhibit. And in fact, some sorts of art and music work well in those settings while others don’t — so the music of Brahms does, and the music from “Barney” children’s shows doesn’t; the art of Degas does and the art you use to decorate your kitchen doesn’t. But it’s just simple prejudice to say “this use of music and art is THE legitimate use of music and art;” or “music and art that does THIS well is good music and art.” Nursery rhymes are good music. They’re not Bon Iver. But they’re also good nursery rhymes (in part) *because* they’re not Bon Iver. All of this is helpful to me in thinking about the “crappy” music that I really like. Some of the music that I loved, I loved because it *was* music that was particularly well suited to driving around with friends, or hanging out in the basement, or whatever. It was music that was perfectly well suited to those uses I asked of it. And I love it now, partly because it captures and allows me to enter back into those moments and that history — better than would listening to a John Prine album, or Brian Eno, or some other critically acclaimed “work of genius.” And part of what I want to say is that “deeply reflecting on superb musical craft” and “entering into the energetic exuberance of another time in my life” are both entirely valid functions and uses of music.

    I think all of this is important because it may be one area in which our modern western thinking about music pulls against the ethos of the Kingdom of God — namely pulls toward celebrity and privilege, and away from community and participation. The vast majority of music in human history — overwhelmingly so — has been more along the lines of lullabyes and worksongs and group sing a longs, than it has been along the lines of the magnum opus and the concert performance. Part of the danger of measuring all music on the same scale of musical inventiveness and lyrical profundity is that it encourages us to think of music as something done primarily by “special people” (like geniuses and prodigies) at “special times” (like 8:00 PM Saturday night, after the opening act) in “special places” (like Bridgestone Arena or the Schermerhorn). Part of what I hear you saying in your article is that you love the songs that you and your friends sang and experienced together. If there is a higher use for music, apart from worship, I can’t think of it.

  3. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    I think our formative playlists might look very similar. (I felt a fresh wave of nostalgia at the Copeland/Mae shoutout.)
    Thank you! Lately, I’ve been feeling weirdly nostalgic for the music I used to love, so this resonates.

  4. Kara

    @karajanechase

    Leslie, you have contributed such a gentle and honest spirit to this collection of posts on the Art of Listening, a spirit that I have felt reluctant to embrace at times, for fear of rejection. When I showed up at Bible College, quite literally after walking out of the bars, I didn’t know it was okay to still listen to Led Zeppelin. Or wear my favorite Led Zeppelin t-shirt for that matter. I was afraid of being rejected.

    My first cassette was “Tiffany.” I developed a stage production to her entire album when I was nine years old. I was convinced REO Speedwagon’s ” In My Dreams” should have been on the soundtrack for my obsession, “The Princess Bride.” Weird, I know.

    But you touch on something refreshing and freeing about the unique musical companions of our impressionable youth; thumbprints that are our own, undeniable, and for which we should be unashamed.
    Thank you.

  5. Lila Diller

    Thank you for this! Since finding the Rabbit Room, I too have grappled with the guilt of having never heard of some critically acclaimed artists. I too grew on CCM in the 90s, and it has helped make me who I am today. I loved this quote of yours: “However, returning to the music of one’s youth feels like putting on a pair of well-worn shoes. This music fits perfectly in each nook and cranny of our artistic understanding because it’s the exact thing that formed it.” This is exactly why I reread my favorite books from my teenage years — they helped me become who I am today. Same with my music. “Nostalgia and familiarity are often the real driving forces that develop our musical tastes.” Yes!

  6. Andrew Warner

    I am also slowly learning to not be embarrassed or ashamed at my love of 90’s CCM and early 2000’s alternative Christian music (Anberlin, Juliana Theory, Further Seems Forever, PAX 217, etc). I have enjoyed the music the critics love off and on over the years, but when you wrote, “However, returning to the music of one’s youth feels like putting on a pair of well-worn shoes. This music fits perfectly in each nook and cranny of our artistic understanding because it’s the exact thing that formed it.” I couldn’t help but shout, “Yes!” I am who I am today in a lot of ways because of the uncool music I listened to in my formative years. That being said, I will say there have been two constants in my musical life from then until now… Andrew Peterson and Rich Mullins. They shaped me back then and continue to shape me now.

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