I’ve never been set up on a date, but I can imagine such an occasion creates quite a bit of pressure. After weeks of your friend telling you, “I think you two will really hit it off; I can’t believe you haven’t met already,” there’s a heightened sense of anxiety for things to go right. And if they don’t, it’s probably your fault. You don’t want to disappoint your matchmaker friend, so you reluctantly agree to meet. At this point, however, there’s no possible way expectations can be met, right? This is how I feel when someone tells me I’ve been missing out on one of their favorite musical artists.
To that end, I’ve avoided Chicagoan alternative rock group Wilco almost entirely following multiple conversations that have gone, “WHAT?! You haven’t heard Wilco??” No, sir. And your enthusiasm has only further ensured I can’t possibly listen to Wilco and enjoy it to the extent you want me to. But nonetheless, the time finally came this week, and I went on a first date with Wilco.
Considering all the buildup to this auspicious occasion, I thought it proper to set the mood. I opened the windows to the cool fall breeze, lit some candles, and poured the last of my Amador Double Barrel bourbon before allowing Wilco’s 1995 debut record A.M. to flood my ears. “WAIT,” I can hear Wilco fans objecting. “You’re supposed to listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth first!” Yeah, yeah. I get it. But one, this is Quarter Notes and those records weren’t released 25 years ago, and two, I like to start at the beginning when possible.
So I listened through Wilco’s debut, and to be sure, their faux-southern charm and tongue-in-cheek country leanings were engaging. A.M. is beautifully easy to listen to. However, three days later, I remember hardly anything about that album. Nothing grabbed me as something I must listen to. Nothing lived up to my friends’ certainty that we’re a perfect, compatible match. Nothing made me feel like going on a second date.
Maybe this is because I really do need to listen to their supposed best work (the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth), and A.M. is truly a mediocre-to-good record. However, I was struck by a larger realization that I’ve been contemplating over the last few days. Expectations are everything when it comes to engaging with art.
Enjoy the artist and their work for what it is, then do the critical work of evaluation and defining the relationship once you’ve given them a fair shot.Chris Thiessen
Consider another musical “first date” I had recently. Despite releasing their first record over 30 years ago, I had never before listened to Ohio lo-fi, indie rock legends Guided By Voices. I had never specifically been told I should do so, besides various articles and things I had seen about them. So with no expectations attached, I grabbed a beer and played Rocket League while taking in their 1995 album Alien Lanes for the first time. I had an absolute blast. The unpolished budgetlessness of the record combined with excellent musical hooks made me feel like I was listening to scratch demos for the Beatles’ White Album. (That’s high praise; don’t let me oversell the record, ha!)
So here’s my dilemma: I may truly enjoy Guided By Voices more than Wilco, at least on the first impression. However, my expectations for the two listening experiences were entirely different. My bar was set quite low for the former and impossibly high for the latter. I think in order to be a good listener and enthusiast of music, I need to carry an equal level of expectation to each artist and each work I engage with. This won’t always be possible, but the disparity of personal feelings and expectations we hold toward different artists and works of art must be recognized and addressed, like any bias in our lives.
Love doesn’t often happen at first sight, neither will an artist often change your life with the first impression. These things are OK. It’s OK to lower your expectations when listening to a certain artist for the first time. Just grab a beer and enjoy listening. Enjoy the artist and their work for what it is, then do the critical work of evaluation and defining the relationship once you’ve given them a fair shot. It often takes living with an artist for some time for their music to reveal itself to you and truly feel like a part of your life. So temper those expectations. Don’t hope for every new listen to be The One that changes everything.
As for Wilco, this is me apologizing for my unfairness with first impressions. Call me back. I’d like to go on that second date.
Click here to listen to A.M. on Spotify, and here to listen on Apple Music.
This post originally appeared on Chris Thiessen’s weekly newsletter, Quarter Notes. Click here to learn more and subscribe.
Funny. To carry the analogy further, it’s a lot like you put off that first date so long, she’s now 25 years older, married, and has adult children.
But that doesn’t work either, because at least a person would have grown and continue to be part of an ongoing cultural conversation, whereas an album by a 25-year-old band is an historical document. It’s like when I tried to listen to the Flying Burrito Brothers for the first time in the mid-90s. You can appreciate the sound, but I am not sure it’s easy to “get.”
I’ve never listened to Guided By Voices, so I’ll give them a try.
Athough I’m partial to “I must be high”, A.M. was a weak debut album and when the band heard Son Volt’s debut (and of the critical acclaim it received), it sent them back to the studio, rekindled to create. Maybe you’ll run into Wilco out in the world somewhere while minding your own business, and when you hear “Misunderstood” playing it will stop you in your tracks and leave you wanting more.
Also, their mid-life albums (particularly YHF and A Ghost is Born) have been often characterized as “American Radiohead”. Fantastic creative work.
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