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The Lost Art Of Being Stuck With An Album

Shoppers Looking at Records at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard (Photo by nik wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images)
Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images

For either my 12th birthday or the Christmas before my aunt gave me a copy of R.E.M.’s Green, which has an orange cover. She also gave me a copy of Belinda Carlisle’s Runaway Horses (Belinda looking sultry in black and white and a crochet sweater thing) and a third album. I can’t remember what the third album was; it might have been the Bon Jovi album with the cover that looked like denim.

I listened to Green so much that I can’t really tell you if I like it or even if I ever liked it. It is definitely not consistent with my overall taste in music. I know absolutely nothing about music, but this has never stopped me from having strong opinions. What I want from music is the auditory equivalent of tipping an entire box of Nerds into my mouth: that moment when the sweetness becomes actively painful; a blast of sensation so strong that it effectively erases whatever petty human concerns had previously occupied my mind; and zero tastes that occur in nature. Ideally every recognizable emotion will be lacquered into foreignness and thereby made frightening in the way that familiar furniture in an unlit room at night is. I feel that any album or a song that does this represents a real aesthetic achievement, but also it is an aesthetic achievement immediately accessible to your average small child. Sections of Runaway Horses (a great album with one of the worst songs in the history of all time on it) achieve this state; zero percent of Green does.

My tastes have not changed that much since I was 12, but my understanding and acceptance of them has. If someone gave me Green now, I would probably listen to it once or twice, acknowledge its virtues and move on. But when I was 12 I listened to it over and over and over again; I listened to it so much that I fell in love with it.

After all, I was stuck with it. I had a limited number of cassette tapes and this was one of them. This condition of my youth seems both hugely important and impossible to really convey to anyone whose life postdates the internet. If I wanted to read something, I had what was already on my shelves; if I wanted to listen to something, I had the radio or the household supply of music. Music could be bought, but the process of finding and buying was subject to a degree of contingency that I can’t really explain. I once bought a different Red Hot Chili Peppers album from the one I meant to buy and just never did anything about it. This is of course a me problem—why didn’t I just go back and exchange the album for the one I wanted?—but a me problem that the material conditions of the time produced. As I was writing this I came across the part of Stay True by Hua Hsu where he writes about his love for Pavement and Polvo and then says, “[b]ut I could have started browsing in the R section instead and fallen under the spell of other bands just as easily.” The idea that everything is more or less available more or less instantly continues to shock me. 

Green is an album that I love, but I had to work to love it. I have been thinking about that process, which also means thinking about what it means to love something so deeply embedded in the not-necessarily-lovable cultural moment during which I encountered it. I’m not saying anything particularly groundbreaking if I say that Green, despite being released in 1988, really captures a particular aspect of the nineties mood. The way you can hear the instruments, the way the songs feint at pop but then dodge again, the relentless conflation of the personal with the political, the earnestness. The earnestness! Loving any piece of cultural production is always an outward-facing experience; for me, with Green, that feels extra-true. For a lot of the cultural objects that I love, I hold in my head a sense of what other people would think of me if they knew that I liked this thing. I don’t feel that way about Green. It feels so much a piece of the time and place and culture that I grew up in that I can only assume that anybody who looks at me already knows those things about me represented by my love for Green.

The thing is, though, that even if the process of falling in love with it was contingent, I am glad I spent all that time listening to Green. The type of R.E.M. song that came to define the band over the years tended to be straightforwardly ironic and a little impersonal. By contrast Green sounds complicated—the landscape of it is something that can’t be captured entirely by memory. And the lyrics are both weirdly hopeful and also resolutely fucked up in a way that hooked me then and continues to hook me now. If a lot of songs package emotion into something happening to a more attractive version of the listener, the songs of Green felt like they were voiced by someone just as unattractive and conflicted as the listener. Unattractive and conflicted but also permeable, operating in a totally different register to the defiance a lot of music brings to the project of representing unattractiveness.

Or maybe all of this is bullshit because what I am really describing is who I was at the time, a fucked-up preteen scavenging for instruction about the way the world was and desperate to be told how to be. It is pointless to try to sort it out. I can’t listen to Green now without the overlay that I put on it then, just as I cannot help, any time I move house, trying to identify which direction the different windows face, based on the stupidly hectoring “Stand,” which was the closest thing to a pop song that I could find on Green, and, therefore, the first of its songs that I learned to love.

Because I love Green so much, it is hard not to think that the project of learning to love it was a valuable one. I could, quite easily, convince myself that my ability to love other works of art, to commit to the project of understanding things that don’t immediately please me, was forged in that fire. And so if the project of learning to love this particular album was valuable it is hard not to think that the conditions that caused it are good. This point of view feels especially compelling when I start thinking too hard about how many resources get consumed in the project of making people feel that their media consumption options are unlimited.

But neither the fact that I love Green nor the fact that I love it because of some particular historical circumstances mean that those historical circumstances were a good thing. They weren’t. It was bad and annoying that getting music was so hard. That some good things for me personally came out of that fact does not make it less bad and annoying. That our current set of circumstances are also bad and annoying in different ways does not mean that we should return to that state of affairs. This is the line of thinking that kept me from taking psych meds for years and years: I did not see how I could value the person I was and also want to change the circumstances under which that person existed. And then when I finally went on medication, it turned out that my personhood was not actually dependent on being completely fucking miserable. 

Everything is contingent; the fact that good things can come out of the contingencies does not make the contingencies good. If there were not these sets of facts there would be others. If I had not loved Green, I would have loved some other album. 

Or, I guess, another way to put it is that the only reason I started thinking about Green again is that my current music streaming service keeps playing bits of it to me. I imagined, when I first surrendered to streaming, that I would be exercising a lot of choice and free will, selecting with infinite care and precision beloved songs to go onto epic playlists. It turns out, though, that I mostly just use any streaming service as a radio station minus commercials and banter; I let the algorithm work its will. In this particular case that means that sometimes I will be sitting in the Safeway parking lot and “The Wrong Child” will come on. I do not always want to be forcibly reminded, in the Safeway parking lot, of being 12 years old. But there are for sure worse things that could happen.

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