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Hey, ageing! Leave our musical memories alone

Essay | 10 minute read
Culture critic Fiona Sturges rediscovers the music of her youth, and goes in search of a new soundtrack for life

When I started writing about music in the late nineties, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was working at a newspaper, and pop was still a relatively new addition to broadsheet arts coverage. My job thus far had been to input cinema and TV listings onto a tiny, migraine-inducing grid at the bottom of the arts section. But, on hearing my incessant prattling about pop, my editor decided to throw me a bone and commission a review. I remember triumphantly phoning my dad – who never bought a record in his life – to tell him that, after years of blowing my teenage earnings on records and concert tickets, I was at last being paid to go to a gig. He responded with a sigh. ‘I’d have thought you’d have grown out of all that by now,’ he said.

This wasn’t the proud response I was hoping for, although my sense of deflation isn’t the only reason his remark has stayed with me. There has long been an expectation among fair-weather music fans, or those with no interest in it at all, that pop music is something that we grow out of, along with Disney movies, bubblegum and Doctor Marten boots. It is, in part, why major labels pump their considerable resources into marketing fresh, young artists whom they hope will appeal to teenage ears while frequently leaving their older ones to fester on the shelf. It’s also why the industry has no hesitation in dropping these fresh, young artists if they don’t immediately recoup their investment, when, in an ideal world, they’d nurture them and allow them to develop their craft.

This idea that, as we move through adulthood, we are supposed to let go of the cultural artefacts and events that previously brought so much joy is one I’ve always disliked. Culture comes in many shapes and forms, but no one was telling me in my twenties that I should quit watching horror movies, or bin my Jilly Cooper novels – though, in fairness, I’d pretty much exhausted the Cooper canon by the age of fifteen. This suggestion that I should outgrow pop and perhaps move on to something more high-minded like opera, was, at the time, deeply irritating (perhaps I have faulty ears, but opera still sounds as awful to me now as it did in my teens). And so, through luck as much as design, I turned my love of pop music into a career.

Would I have continued feasting on music as voraciously had I not been professionally required to do so? Certainly, I wouldn’t have been able to invest nearly as much time in it. While there have been times when I have literally screamed at being asked to listen to another guitar band comprising men from the Home Counties called Olly or Ben, it has been a privilege to call listening to music, and talking to those who make it, a job.

But lately my relationship with music has begun to change. I’m in my forties, and, for reasons I have struggled to fathom, I now find that my desire to soak up new sounds, to actively seek out something I’ve never heard before, has begun to dwindle. There’s been a conspicuous… slowing down. I would like to be able to put this down to life getting in the way, and there is certainly an element of this. Much of my work now revolves around reading books and watching TV (I know: tough gig) and, really, there are only so many hours in the day. Domestically, things are different too. I have a daughter with her own thoughts about what should soundtrack our daily life – although, luckily for me, we like a lot of the same things. But it’s not simply about lack of time; it’s also about motivation. My ability to absorb new music is, bit by bit, becoming overwhelmed by a desire to hear the records of my past, or to delve into the work of older artists that I have guiltily overlooked. In some ways this is very satisfying – twenty years of reviewing has meant I have built up an unusually eclectic collection and there are gems and horrors in there that I had forgotten existed. But perhaps more unsettling is that I’ve started feeling weary at the prospect of going to gigs. OK, that’s not strictly true; I still enjoy them – but only if they have seats. Dear God, what have I become?

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Over the years I have heard endless debates about the comparative merits of pop music across the decades. In this far-from-scientific study I have gleaned that a lot of fans – i.e. those who have invested time and money into music in their teens and twenties – have come to believe that the music of today rarely matches up to the sounds of their youth. There will never be another Bowie, or Aretha, or Prince, they will say – and, of course, they are right, because they are irreplaceable. But the notion that the music of yore is intrinsically superior to what is produced today is nonsense; if you don’t believe me, just go and see Janelle Monáe live. In any case, one thing I have learned from writing about cultural matters is that there is always – always – great music being created, just as there are always great books being written and films being made. But there is also a lot of crap. We live in a time in which there is more music, more books, more films, more crap than ever before, so the potentially life-changing stuff doesn’t always get heard above the hubbub. In short, locating good music takes time and effort.

There is, though, a certain logic to this idea that the music we heard in our teens sounded fresher and more immediate – or, to put it a different way, that current music sounds old hat; that has to do with familiarity. Music, like so many areas of culture, tends to operate in cycles, and so, as we get older, we start to notice the ideas and motifs repeated across the ages. Youthful rebellion can blow your mind when you are young; when you are older you are more likely to smile indulgently and wait for the storm to pass. The flipside to this for long-in-the-tooth listeners is that when you hear something genuinely ground-breaking, it’s like stumbling on the Ark of the Covenant. Like thousands before me, I had this experience when watching David Byrne’s American Utopia show recently. Byrne is no spring chicken and has been performing for nearly forty years, but in redrawing the rules of music performance and moving it to something closer to promenade theatre, he has alighted on something genuinely unexpected and thrilling. Weeks later, I still can’t stop thinking about it.

But there is another reason why the music of one’s youth seems more potent, one which underlines the spuriousness of the then vs. now debate. It’s because of the way our brains are wired. The music we listen to as teenagers shapes us; it marks our minds indelibly. In the book This is Your Brain on Music, the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes about how our brains are ‘maximally receptive – almost spongelike – when we’re young, hungrily soaking up any and all sounds they can and incorporating them into the very structure of our neural wiring. As we age, these neural circuits are somewhat less pliable, and so it becomes more difficult to incorporate, at a deep neural level, new musical systems, or even new linguistic systems.’ All of which is to say that music sounds better when your brain is unfurling rather than slowly atrophying.

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

Then there’s the matter of identity. At the very point in our early teens when we are trying to assert our independence and formulate a life that is separate from those who reared us, along come these songs offering a smorgasbord of sounds, looks and attitudes that we can pick up, try on and, should we feel like it, adopt as our own. I can remember the moment I first heard The Smiths and, trite as it sounds now, the earth-shattering sense of Morrissey and Marr having climbed into my head, gathered up all my fractured yet keenly felt thoughts and feelings, and syphoned them into songs more poignant and beautiful than I thought were possible. I’m older, wiser and a lot more cynical now, but these are songs I cherish. I never tire of them.

Meanwhile, reinforcing this sense of identity is kinship. As well as validating one’s adolescent self, music can provide a ready-made community. Even in the pre-internet age, finding the music I loved in my early teens told me there were other people in the world with the same thoughts, fears and obsessions as me. As a girl reared in the countryside with little more than sheep for company, this was a revelation. I can just imagine the delight of teenagers today discovering new music and being able to make contact with fellow obsessives directly via their phones and computers, instead of lurking awkwardly in record shops as I used to do. It’s no wonder that this is the music that stays with us for a lifetime, and that we wish to seek out in later life, when the heady days of youth feel increasingly distant.

This ability to retrieve and relive these markers of adolescence has a name: the reminiscence bump. The term describes the increased proportion of autobiographical memories from the age of ten to nineteen in adults over the age of forty, the bump being the raised portion on a graph charting one’s recollections. The theory goes that not only is this the decade in which we undergo the greatest changes, and where we are figuring out who we are, it’s also a period of firsts, all of which have a greater impact on the memory. These might include first love, first overseas holiday or first job. It’s also the period when we might buy our first album and go to our first gig. These are our formative moments.

None of this is to say, however, that new music is the preserve of young people and that the middle-aged and upwards are forever destined to look longingly backwards. It was twenty years ago that my dad wished out loud that I would grow out of pop music, and a lot has changed since then. To me, one of the most joyful developments in twenty-first-century gig-going is seeing parents accompanied by their adult children at concerts and festivals, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. Pop has not only become an acceptable pursuit across the generations, in many families it actively unites them. It’s worth noting, too, that my father was born in 1930, before teenagers and rock’n’roll had been invented. He was in his mid-twenties, and had already fought in Korea, when Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis lobbed a grenade into popular culture. He missed the rock ’n’ roll boat.

But just because the generation gap has narrowed, and dads and daughters are now dancing side by side at gigs, doesn’t mean that we have to like all the same bands, or listen to them in the same way. My job used to involve searching for and spreading the word about rising artists, but now my grasp on them has slipped away. There is sadness but also an element of relief in no longer being forever on a quest for the new – clearly, this is a job for someone who doesn’t go to gigs praying there’ll be seats. But even as my listening habits change, music still looms reassuringly large in my life. You don’t forget your first love, after all.

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