Music is a loser's game. Those of you who have tried to keep up with new releases both niche and popular, never mind checking out old records, will know what I’m talking about. You’ll be listening to albums like it’s your job, trying to build an understanding of each record in under two listens before tossing it aside for the new Taylor Swift album you probably weren’t even excited for anyway, and at the end of a night of intense listening you’ll come away with naught but a sensation that you’ve wasted your time, and what is time anyway, and we’re all going to die eventually so let’s just put on Kendrick Lamar and chill out for a hot minute.
About a year ago, listening to popular music and understanding its history did become my job since I was writing a paper on it. After asking some professionals and musicians for advice, I’ve managed to discern three commandments to use when uncovering your own musical identity.
The allure of grappling with the history of popular music, from Robert Johnson through Rolling Stones through The Jimi Hendrix Experience through Nirvana through to Tyler, the Creator and everything in between can be hard to ignore. Who could resist following the footsteps of giants, watching the metamorphosis of recorded music shift and crack as it evolves? The problem is that it’s completely counter to human nature. Consider nursery rhymes, taught to you by your parents, who learned it from their parents, and so on. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” went through a number of iterations before it reached your two-year-old ears as the new frontier of human civilisation. And so, too, has today’s music. By listening backwards (in time, artist to artist, not DAMN-style) from your favourite millennial artist and their inspirations, you gain a much deeper and more organic understanding of the music and how genres take their form today.
We’ve all studied the lists. Pages and pages of “the top 100 essential albums you NEED to have listened to before you die” pored over, us completely none-the-wiser as to what albums are just good by consensus or what was infinitely influential, so much so that death without listening to them would be no death at all. After reading a few of these lists it becomes clear how arbitrary they are. Listening to albums from lists like those or organically re-discovering them is like the difference between learning French in a classroom and actually going to France. Sure, you learn the words and hear the accent, but it doesn’t sound sexy and the wine isn’t as good.
Instead, pick your favourite artist. Follow (back-to-front) who influenced them, listening to the music they made and their evolution, and then follow the music that was influencing them. Do this with a few of your favourite artists and see how the cream rises. Of course Stevie Wonder is essential, look how many artists were infected by his groove. Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is a classic, not because some critic told you, but because look at how it shaped the concept albums your favourite artist has put out. In this way your understanding of the development of modern music will be nuanced but more importantly geared towards you and the music you like. And these foundations can be really useful in discovering new artists, too. If a band holds a reference for the guitar heroes of the 70s, best believe their guitarist can play. Perhaps a sound-cloud rapper shows disdain for prior rap artists? Maybe they’re pioneering a new sound and their musics about to get really interesting (Hey, I said maybe).
Lastly, it’s important to understand yourself and the music you like. If you catch yourself struggling through an LP just because your favourite band said it was all they listened to, don’t hesitate to switch it off and go check out a different release. It often happens that as people shift from casual music listeners to avid hobbyists they begin to lose perspective on their own sense of what sounds good, which in turn distorts their view of other music, which is how you often see hive-minded people judging music by consensus rather than their own crafted opinion.
If you’re honest with yourself and what you like, you will listen more attentively, and find more music that you like, and your listening sessions will become infinitely more rewarding. After all, it’s as an old lecturer of mine once said:
“Music is a journey, so you’d better be sitting comfortably."