Freshman year of college seems now like it was a one-off opportunity to dabble in new identities, new ideas, new ill-conceived bits of mischief and mayhem. The world didn't open up so much as become a comfortable little low-stakes bubble, in which just about everything was permissible but nothing was that big of a deal, either -- for someone coming out of advanced high school classes that were routinely not only difficult but out of my academic comfort zones, classes themselves were a breeze going on a joke -- I was a film student, for one thing, and had bypassed most of my core requirements in advanced high school classes. So for a year, school was more of a summer camp -- and frankly intellectually/emotionally I hadn't progressed all that far from my junior year when I got the bug to delve into music more seriously.
When I think of 2003, I think of huddling -- cramped rooms with too many people in them in which nothing was really happening for hours at a time. So a lot of music happened this way. I remember a friend who knew "Work It" by Missy Elliott so well that he could record himself singing the backwards part, then reverse it on his computer so we'd hear his voice unnaturally saying "put my thang down flip it and reverse it." I remember thrashing around to a particular section of the Boredoms' "Cheeba." I remember conversations about Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life and seeing bad and/or competent student bands (usually in cramped rooms with too many people in them). I remember forming a band with my friend Sean, keyboard guitar and bongos, and covering Ween's "Push th' Little Daisies." I wrote two songs this year -- one of them was called "Maybe It's Love" and sounded not unlike the Dr. Mario music, which we broke into at the bridge, the other was a Hot Hot Heat-ish number called "70 Virgins" which was sort of a mock emo song. "It would take 70 virgins, 70 virgins, to fly me where you are / Girl it's true / It would take 70 virgins to fly me home to you." Haw, haw.
I met Emily that summer through a mutual friend in Maryland while Emily was visiting from New Jersey. My friend and I hatched up a scheme to visit her in New Jersey -- this was the Beck and Radiohead concert that was scheduled at Giants stadium and was temporarily canceled due to an endangered species of birds nesting on the field. This worked out perfectly -- though I would have liked to see the bands there, my interest was Emily, not Beck, so when the event was canceled we decided not to purchase the new tickets with a smaller line-up. That was the first to a bunch of trips to New Jersey that summer -- Emily and I hit it off and talked all the time, I sent her pompous declarations of love and the first mix CD I'd ever made, which looked like this:
1. Blur - Girls & Boys [2003, IIRC, is the year that I re-watched High Fidelity and realized that I knew just about every single music reference. By comparison, when I watched it the year it came out, I knew none. I considered this to be a major accomplishment at the time.]
2. Hot Hot Heat - No Not Now [Hot Hot Heat is a good lightning rod band separating the dorks-at-heart from the cool-at-heart in this period of time in the indie world, and I fall pretty squarely into the dork camp, though I never liked much of what they did after this album. Which is super dorky.]
3. Esquivel - Mucha Muchacha [I didn't want to use the obvious one, the Big Lebowski song, since it wouldn't really prove that I knew Esquivel, which for some reason felt like an achievement.]
4. TMBG - Birdhouse in Your Soul [They Might Be Giants is one of the few bands that I knew before I "knew" them, largely through Tiny Toons but also because this was one of those random albums that you might just own and be obsessed with even if you had nothing to do with music otherwise. If I'd actually owned the album I may have been a TMBG fanatic, joined a fan board c. 2000, and then none of you would be reading this right now!]
5. Talking Heads - Who Is It? [Ohhhhh baby it's you.]
6. Beta Band - Dry the Rain [Did I mention High Fidelity? Emily and I still listen to Three EPs all the time, actually, though never anything after that.]
7. Pere Ubu -
Day at the BeachOn the Surface [This was a gamble at the time, but Emily loved this song more than most of the ones on here, which meant a lot at the time as I recall.]
8. Modest Mouse - Heart Cooks Brain [Emily's favorite Modest Mouse song -- she knew them much better than I did at this point.]
9. Self - Dead Man [DAMN I loved this album. Still do -- the "toy album," Gizmodgery. This used to be a song that I held in my head as a mixtape secret weapon, to be deployed with extreme prejudice in the event of a mix lag. I planned out way more mixtapes than I made, of course -- with a few exceptions I've never made a mix for anyone but Emily]
10. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea [This is the first sign of a legit taste change; this song grates on me in a way it didn't in 2003, but I heard it for the first time on that first drive up to New Jersey and it had sentimental value. I do think this is one of the better stand-alone tracks from this album.]
11. Incubus - Summer Love Song (Anti-Gravity) [This was a backfire -- I thought Emily might like the early Incubus stuff more than I did (relisten to it, though, it's pretty good!) but she actually liked it less. Via this mix, I've grown to love this song, but I think Emily always skips it.]
12. The Clash - Train in Vain [This was the last song I stuck on here -- I still hadn't quite figured out the balance between how a song sounds and what the song's "about" as far as a mix is concerned -- I don't care so much about content these days and mix almost purely sonically, but in 2003 I agonized about whether or not I would send the wrong messages with a song with lines like "you didn't stand by me / no not at all / you didn't stand by me / no way." Anyone else get paranoid about lyrical content on a mix being taken the wrong way?]
13. White Stripes - Little Room [Emily wanted "Fell in Love with a Girl" and got this, which was merely a transition track. I think I thought "Fell in Love with a Girl" was too "obvious" or something, but I quickly learned that what I thought was not the be-all and end-all of considerations when it came to thinking about someone who is not actually me.]
14. Dismemberment Plan - Girl O' Clock [Hyuck-hyuck, date rape song as "I miss you babe" track! This should give you a sense of some of the more unpleasant side effects of my sense of humor at this period. Great song though, and it's not as obviously "about date rape" as I seemed to think it was at the time. People can talk shit about Brent D.'s Kid A review all they want but if he hadn't written about Emergency and I the way he did I probably wouldn't have bought it. Funnily enough at college I had a friend from the D.C. area who actually went to, like, shows and loved D-Plan because he'd seen them live so many times, which made car trips from upstate NY to Maryland with him infinitely easier to deal with.]
15. Weezer - Across the Sea [Seriously, why didn't I agonize about the lyrics to THESE songs? If I'd written this song and then had to live with a bunch of fans (like me) who wanted more of this sorta honesty even when I was like 30 I'd start writing some really stupid shit to get them off my back, too.]
16. Elvis Costello - Alison [Didn't realize it at the time, but Emily not liking this song very much was a good sign, too. What a smug bastid. But hey, I thought it was the cleverest thang ever, so what does that say about me?]
17. Radiohead - Just [Emily's favorite Radiohead song. See, she's got some taste, that Emily. Radiohead is effing impossible to put on a mix, btw, they suck all the air out of the room almost without fail. And I love Radiohead. I saw them perform in Maryland on their Hail to the Thief tour and called Emily when they unexpectedly played this as an encore.]
18. Super Furry Animals - Demons [Another pain in the ass band to put on mixes, though I used "Juxtapozed with U" and "Golden Retriever" on subsequent mixes. This one just felt nice after the Radiohead track, sort of a cool-down before my traditional "penultimate/'final'/post-script" sequence that I usually use on these mixes.]
19. Beatles - Got to Get You Into My Life [Emily's favorite band by...what's more than a country mile? A continent mile? Beatles are in the very fabric of her childhood -- from lullabyes ("Golden Slumbers") to the father/daughter dance at our wedding ("In My Life") -- and frankly putting the Beatles on a mix is a daunting prospect when most of their songs have such a historical weight to them. I didn't know the early Beatles at this time, having bought into the "Rubber Soul --> Abbey Road = real Beatles" myth that gets bandied about so often.]
20. R.E.M. - Nightswimming [Ha, this probably wouldn't stand a [cold thing]'s chance in [hot place] of hitting a mix outside of 2003. It is pretty, though it's probably the track on here that I've had the closest thing to a 180 on since then.]
21. Shelley Duval - He Needs Me (Jon Brion remix) [Punch-Drunk Love was a pretty big deal for me and my friends in 2003, the movie that allowed Adam Sandler fans who'd gone more pretentious since childhood/teenagehood to "understand the subtle genius" of his manchild persona or something. But this song is really sweet and the remix is better than the mixes you'll find from the original soundtrack anyway.]
So hey, I was on top of the world, man, new girlfriend, new friends, new confidence, though in hindsight I think I was actually more juvenile in my first year of college than in my last two years of high school. (Points to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for nailing this transition PERFECTLY, albeit not 100% intentionally, in its fourth season.) Emily encouraged me to write a blog, which led to my first attempts at organizing my thoughts in words. The only thing that technically makes the time cut-off for this year was something I wrote on, like, Dec. 30th on the year in music. It included sentences like this:
"the teenyboppers’ post-Backstreet Boys output is kind of like that Britney/Madonna kiss—awesome in theory, vaguely disappointing when you really see it."
I still feel this way about Justin Timberlake, actually! I was crazy underrating the Britney album, which of course I'd never listened to.
"In the world of hip-hop, which seems to be the only hope for even remotely original music in a popular format in the immediate future, the industry is content to let a few ingenious talents (Missy Elliot, the Neptunes, Outkast) define any kind of sonic change in mainstream rap."
The first part of this sentence is probably true, though I didn't know enough about hip-hop to speak to the second part. 'Course, I was defining "sonic change" as "whatever Outkast and Missy Elliott happen to be doing," so perhaps this observation was more a self-fulfilling prophecy than accurate assessment.
"singles have unquestionably dominated the American musical consciousness with a force they haven’t had since...well, before any of us were alive, to be sure."
Who's "we," white man? Anyway, I was just parroting received wisdom here -- wasn't the "artist of the year" in some major magazine poll (Time?) "your hard drive"?
"Indie rock is wiggling and giggling but not really giving us anything to throw in Evanescence’s ugly face."
Dear past me who had only heard like ONE Evanescence song, Evanescence is awesome. Signed, smarter future me who has heard at least three Evanescence songs. (I should probably listen to that album at some point, what with the Hodges/Clarkson connection.)
Anyway, this could quickly devolve into an exercise in masochism, so I'll stop there. My early music writing is extremely defensive, and I'm overcompensating for not bothering to do the work of listening to stuff before making pronouncements about it. I was, to be blunt, a hack, but you have to start somewhere. Think of it like a sculpture -- you can't start perfecting the nose, gotta deal with those big chunks first. So hacking it, as a transitional tool, can often be a useful way to get where you're going.
I have more thoughts on this early stage of music writing in my interview with Scott Woods over at rockcritics.com if you have an hour or so to spare to hear me ramble on about things.
Just to take a step back here, I think that in 2009 I'm probably a little too willing to be harsh on me in 2003, as he's the guy I've most tried to get away from in recent history (just as in 2003 the 13-to-14-year-old me was probably the guy I was trying to get away from). Until recently, my life has often about being comfortable with who I am now by knocking down who I was yesterday, and I think that the period between 2006 and now is the first time that I haven't had an often overly negative second-guessing of what I was doing c. 2 years prior. This might be a sign of adulthood, the extension of time between which you're willing to undergo a personality overhaul -- all I know is that I feel almost exactly as comfortable reading things I wrote three years ago as I do reading things I wrote recently, which I can't say for my writing career before that point. I think this is a sign of growing up, or something.