Staggering Through the Present

I have nightmares about being immortal. I dream that my body ages and decays externally, but it never actually dies. The only way this version of me can tell that time is passing is by observing slight changes in the environment. 

In the real world, I assumed I would change as I got older. For example, I listen to music very differently now than I did twenty years ago. I used to scan lyrics sheets obsessively, searching for hidden insights and secret meanings to life. But I never put a lot of effort into audio fidelity, which is probably why it was so easy to transition to mp3s in the early 2000s. The downside was that digital convenience meant giving up album artwork and the lyrics within.

But in 2018 I found I had a renewed enthusiasm for quality in music. For Christmas, I finally got a turntable again and with my headphones on (despite my tinnitus) I can genuinely hear highs and lows that are missing from my digital media. This led me to look up lyrics again, beginning with my favorite albums that came out this year. I found myself looking inward this time, trying to consider why these musicians spoke to me. Because listening to music often leads me to imagine what it's like to be the people making those contained sounds.


I also used to think that I'd stay curious about current music as I got older, adamantly exposing my raw nerves to a parade of brand-new aural experiences. I assumed if you weren't looking for new music, you were stuck "wallowing" in the past, not challenging yourself. But after reviewing my favorite albums of 2018, I realized that I don't stick to this manifesto very well.

Most of these records were made by other forty-something white folks, who originated in similar scattered pockets of America's punk and metal scenes. These musicians are more like me than not. So instead of wallowing in the past, I'm staggering around in the present. I didn't get left behind. I laid dormant, just adjacent to these other middle-age upstarts in our niche corner of the universe.


Maybe this music isn't as challenging as I once thought it was. Even if it was, aren't instigators like everyone else? Don't they end up replacing the old, clotted traditionalists they sought to disrupt in the first place? There's barely any protest in this 2018 music, despite the exhausting realities of the last year.

For example, let's return to the lyrics. Most of the songs on these records read like high school poetry. At best they're comparing external events like natural disasters to personal struggles with depression or promiscuity. At worst, they're liberally sprinkled with abrasive nouns — terms like "poison," "scavenger," or "spite" — paired with ideas that don't go much further than "woah... astronauts breathing pot smoke through spacesuits."


I'm being judgmental and a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but I used to know some of these people. That guy over there? He dated two separate friends of mine. Together with someone else on this list, he bullied another friend of mine by grabbing their testicles as hard as possible. Here that guy is twenty years later, married with children, but still singing like Cookie Monster about how brutal nature is or something. And I'm no better, because I like his new songs enough that I'm sitting here trying to forgive him, trying to square his past acts away with what might be my favorite record of the year, because "maybe he's a different person now."

Meanwhile, "This is America" is arguably the song that will mark 2018 for future generations. It's by a thirty-something black actor who grew up a Jehovah's Witness just outside of Atlanta. He comes from a world completely different than mine, but he's rapping about national gun violence and using dance music as a subversive protest against entertainment as a trap. "This is America" articulates a real-life horror movie that's happening now, while the songs I was drawn to in the last year sound like they're about fantasy elder gods, gothic witches and magical weapons imagined for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Even though their music feels confrontational, I wonder if these punks on the other side of forty have the same daily concerns I do. Do they exercise enough? Do they worry about using "they/them" pronouns correctly? Are they socially invested in quality personal relationships? Is their creativity leaving them satisfied?

Even if they do share these anxieties, the only reason we're able to worry about such things is because we're privileged. I don't have to worry about whether a cop might shoot me. Or if my boss will sexually assault me. I'm not worried if the government's going to dissolve my marriage or tell me where I can't go to the bathroom. I'm not in any danger of getting deported.

So I'm left to conclude that my subculture is no longer challenging me or the world around it. Maybe it never was. Most of what I listen to is still considered extreme by conventional noise standards. But I naively thought that by now, popular culture would have aligned with these aesthetics. I assumed doom metal would be on NPR and post-hardcore would be the new dad-rock. The genres here are still considered tonally abrasive, but the messages within don't seem confrontational. Instead they feel like denials that we had anything to do with how we got here in the first place, coated in the ridiculous imagery of pirate ships, icy prisons and beheaded monsters.

Maybe this is the choice actually facing us middle-age hipsters. You can either retreat to the benefit of your fantasy bubble or you can poke your head out, realize just how lucky you are and decide to do something about it. If anything, the common theme among these songs is that we're all trying to escape something terribly toxic. If that isn't this year's wake-up call for white, middle-class, cool Americans, I don't know what is. Even Rick Froberg, now fifty years old, sang repeatedly, "Have I been preyed upon?"

Neko Case, not much younger than Froberg, also asked, "Why should mystery give its life for me?" By asking, she seems aware that what used to seem like secret, forbidden knowledge, now feels like stale, passive acceptance. Maybe there's more intention there, under dense lyrical symbolism. Maybe I'm old enough now to be the clichéd man looking backward, complaining about how nothing's like it used to be. Or maybe there's an argument to be made for music that's designed to bring you comfort instead of restlessness. But if I'm going to live in this nightmare where I never age, the least I expect is a soundtrack that cuts me to the quick, so my mind doesn't become as apathetic as my body. 

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