I recognize now how bizarre the three years following my last Naive Listener (TM) period (this isn't an accurate term, but comparatively it feels right-ish) were -- in retrospect it felt like cramming for a test I ultimately bullshitted (well enough) through, learning the ropes as quickly and thoroughly as possible in various strands of music and rockwrite history and faking my way to the "top" -- which is to say that some guy you've probably heard of said that I, some guy you probably haven't heard of, wrote the "most influential review of the decade," proceeding to explain exactly why this was such a dubious distinction. I'll get to that in 2004, though.
When I interviewed Brie Larson in 2007, she expressed misgivings about her own trajectory to fame, calling it a "slip and slide" ("except there's no water on it so you get rug burn"). I sympathize with her; I can remember the exact moment I decided to get "into" music, and can chart the early history of this period of my life fairly well (much as she pinpointed the exact moment she had her "break," essentially at random), but it amazes me now to think that in a little under three years I'd somehow parlayed this genuine impulse into a reasonably well-read regular publishing gig. I wasn't ready for it (rug burn), though now I'm mostly glad I had the opportunity at all -- it didn't seem quite as obvious to me then just how drastically public opportunities to write with any authority or audience would shrivel, even between then (c. 2004) and now. I can't imagine a venue or audience for my writing now when I feel most comfortable actually doing it, and my interests in writing have largely mutated from the original path I saw -- not just for myself, but for anyone who loved listening to and writing about music -- into an almost exclusively personal drive, and an increasingly insular series of conversations. I have real trouble imagining anything bigger.
But let's go back to 2001: I'm at a summer camp with other kids, they're into movies I like, but occasionally they wander off topic and get into conversations about bands -- the Beatles, Weezer, U2. I remember feeling particularly excluded from a conversation about U2's Joshua Tree and resolving to listen to the thing. Listen to ALL the things. Listen to everything. Just listen, figure things out, if only to be able to participate in conversation. As was then my habit, I began hoarding, listing, scouring the earth for details upon details, biographies, discographies, many of these coming from All Music Guide, which at the time was pretty much unparalleled for substantial history/criticism of what felt like any album you could imagine. I burned CD after CD after CD, all the same white discs from an enormous spindle, marked in red permanent marker -- compilations at first, "Doors #1," "Doors #2," then albums (usually two per disc). I ripped them from my friends at camp, but also spent an absurd amount of time navigating the blue vistas of Audiogalaxy, then a more reliable spot than Napster, for each individual track from a given album. I would get obsessed at times finding an inconsequential track that for whatever reason was the only one missing from a given album. I spent hours and hours, mostly at night (my insomnia toward the middle to end of the camp was bad, and I was lonely and homesick), reading and listening and downloading, repeat, repeat, repeat.
I had a friend, Gordon, who was at that time probably the ideal Pitchfork writer -- at about 16 he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the same corner of music, beginning at Mission of Burma and the "Our Band Could Be Your Life" bands and ending at the new Weezer album, which was (apparently) devastating but still essential. I had a teacher at the summer camp, a director, an avid Zappa fan whose life dream was to stage a version of Joe's Garage; he emailed me a list of about 500 artists he "liked," no further commentary, and I added names to my 10-pt font alphabetically ordered list, "Albums to Get," arbitrarily. Duke Ellington, Dinosaur Jr., Low, Tribe Called Quest, Lilys, Ani DiFranco, The Clash, Portishead...no real rhyme or reason to any of it, just an ever-expanding list. I lost it long ago, but it'd be interesting to see who I never got around to actually hearing -- who's on there I don't even recognize now. I'm sure there are dozens.
I would lie on my back and "get moved" -- I honestly hadn't listened closely to pop music like this, in what I would call dorm fashion, tired, inert, just listening carefully for sounds and words, letting the music act not as soundtrack but as appreciation object. I don't listen quite like that anymore, either -- too many forced "revelations," too much effort transforming mere boredom into something more thoughtful. It was like a performance for myself: I am going to listen to this to really HEAR something. I think it was helpful -- I was quick to notice structure and attitude and feeling I may not have heard otherwise -- but there was something mildly phony about it, as though I was as busy convincing myself of the music's importance as I was understanding why I genuinely liked it. And I did genuinely like it -- loved the post-Rubber Soul Beatles records particularly, all of which I bought that summer, loved just about everything I listened to, really -- but I was also fitting it into an ambiguous narrative I saw for the music, something that set me apart from others in understanding not just why the music was good, but why the music mattered.
But figuring out why music matters isn't as simple as checking things off of a list, regardless of how extensive that list is, and what I hadn't done yet is give any reasons for WHY I liked this stuff, or why I was even interested in "being into" music, aside from the fact that (1) I just was, and (2) it gave me a conversational tool with which I could get closer to my peers. And this is a crucial reason to listen to music, but at the same time there's something that in retrospect feels wrong -- the same anxiety that Brie was addressing, of taking shortcuts and failing to pay your dues. With some perspective I recognize that shortcuts are part of life, and (e.g.) Brie's shortcuts were the only thing that allowed her to have a career at all; you can't just work your way up from a coffeehouse when you're 14 years old. Similarly, just because my appreciation was forced doesn't mean it wasn't genuine, or that I wasn't learning a lot. But still, at a personal level, something in it feels like cheating.
With hindsight, there was no other way for this to happen -- I grew up largely without a network of people who were "into music" in the way that the writers I grew to admire in this period were, and had no access to such a network even if I was looking for it. This is one thing the internet has changed, I suppose, but there's also the fact that learning about a ton of music history is hard, and such a concerted effort was something I wouldn't have been able to undertake until about the age I did anyway. I was a bright kid, but I excelled in sanctioned activities -- classical piano and English classes, say -- and was generally a teacher's pet. Rock music, far from offering rebellion, merely offered me a sanctioned way to excel in slightly edgier activities. Getting into music the way I did was safe; it was a school subject I loved. But I wasn't really challenging myself, was learning trivia but wasn't thinking critically. And part of me wonders if this was a path I could have stayed on, always meeting the lower expectations of cleverness well enough to avoid the challenge of pushing myself out of that comfortable territory, into the space where pop music can completely uproot or make irrelevant those reliable paths, taking you into the social wilderness that, I learned much later, is what truly makes it worth doing in the first place.
This is why, I think, I've distanced myself from this incarnation of my musical taste -- in many ways the most formative years of my life as a critical listener -- and rediscovered the messier paths to value and epiphany I found before I was "into" music. Because at that time, before I found the convenient and enormous but ultimately circumscribed maps (All Music Guide was a big map, the biggest map, but in its own uniquely pointillistic way it was still a very specific map charting a very specific and very narrow social territory), I was really INTO music, in the thick of it, letting it weave itself into my life and change me in ways that were surprising. When I used a map whose comfortably interconnected points led me to that odd sense of contrived but powerful clarity in seeing how various sites form a cogent path, as in a tourist's guide, I failed to put any of my discoveries at risk. It was the homework guide in the back of the book, and I took the answers' correctness for granted.
None of this is to say that I didn't genuinely like the stuff I liked. Far from it -- I count many of my earliest discoveries among my most cherished and (now) deeply nostalgic pieces of music, ones I return to and can feel the excitement of hearing it for the first time even as I shudder at how pretentious or clumsy it may be; comfort food is comfort food. But as an intellectual process of discovery the endeavors, however thorough they may have been, were fundamentally shallow. Without this process I don't think I could have begun to recognize what it meant to get "deep," what it meant to really get back into music, as one gets back into a forest after observing the landscape from a higher vantage, or perhaps with a tour guide. But there were growing pains, difficult ones, when I had to come to grips with just how poorly sketched out the seemingly vast world I was transcribing into my brain really was, and how ultimately unhappy and anxious I was merely expanding the range of my knowledge without really learning anything.