Happy one-year anniversary of when the whole world went to crap.
This past week gave me an opportunity to – ugh, puke – “reflect” on 2020 in so many ways, but for the moment the music world. The industry was already struggling before COVID-19* because of the deleterious effect streaming has had on maintaining a surviving career. Live performance was the way to earn one’s keep, and then live performance got cratered by the COVID meteor.
(*Side note: COVID-19 stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.” It’s not the latest of COVIDs 1-18. Please don’t say it is in front of people because it makes you look like an idiot. Good? Good. Moving on.)
2020 was actually a great year for music creation because now artists had lots of time to make it, the incentive to get it out there and digital audio workstations made it accessible. I can’t say the results of these issued forth great art frequently, but there was a hell of a lot of it.
For myself, I found myself withdrawing from new music a bit. I’m not sure that was the best idea. I leaned into my old favorites and leaned hard. I craved comfort food, and like any craving, it satisfies for only so long, and then you start dissecting it like anything else and you can cut away too much of the magic that initially drew you to it. That magic doesn’t necessarily come back.
Put it this way: pizza is your comfort food. It is safe, reliable, and certain. Even bad pizza is pretty good, and you have to really work at making intolerable pizza. But if you put all your expectations into pizza making you feel better, you’re more likely to be more critical of every aspect of your slice. Eventually, you either back away from your extra cheese and pepperoni or you find yourself liking it less.
I have to believe I’m not alone in this. When engaging with others on social media before COVID, I’d often find the STANS who would always tell you their favorite band is the best band ever, they’ve never been anything less than brilliant, and you’re a fool for not being as obsessive as they are. A few months after lockdown kicked in, I found these same folks openly expressing that they were putting their fan relationship on time-out.
Music can be beautiful, lyrics insightful, and the combination of the two transcendent…but that frequently accounts for little more than 30% of your enjoyment of it. The other 70% is the manifest memories affixed to those songs.
I have experiences attached to these songs, moments of my youth, people in my life, even smells in the air as a song was playing. Sense memory is incredibly strong and music is a powerful trigger, but they are only memories. If you find yourself jonesing for “the good times,” songs are remarkable for bringing them to mind, but they don’t bring them back to life.
The fact that I can’t bring back Oceanport, New Jersey, the way it was, and my mom the way she was when Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” hit the radio never bothered me quite as it does today. The sound of Perry Como’s singing doesn’t bring my father back with a smile but reminds me that he’s gone. Those playlists that soundtracked summer barbecues, springtime bike marathons, Christmas music…the ghosts you desperately hope will haunt you from these have long since been exorcised.
That’s not to say you don’t like these songs anymore. You do, and you always will, but I wanted a time machine and got a photograph. The way I interact with this media has changed fundamentally.
At the same time, the music you don’t have an affinity for takes on an even more negative sheen. Those songs seem so disconnected from our present reality.
You might respond, “I felt the same way after 9/11, and it got better over time.” Okay, but this is different. There remains a fear that a terrorist attack could happen out of blue again, but the probability of it is surprisingly low.
Epidemiologists say that COVID-19 is with us now for the rest of our lives. Will it be a pandemic moving forward? No, it will become very much like Influenza whereby each year will see variations and mutations, and you will likely need a yearly vaccination as you do a flu shot. There will be weak years and there will be very strong years where spread will be heavy and deaths will rack up. The probability is…well, it is certainty.
And all music will be caught between the streams that William Blake identified as innocence and experience. There will always be the asterisk alongside what came before, and the scorn I must assign to songs afterward. “How could you have been so reckless, so stupid,” I might find myself saying.
I hope it will get better. We seem to be getting better. With the holidays over and springtime looming, close-quarters contact has given way to open space, reducing spread. Vaccinations are getting out there on a more consistent level. Eventually, those who had the virus will outrank those who have yet to get the virus, and fewer targets mean fewer outbreaks. I hope I will regain a better relationship with all media, not just music, but movies, TV, all of it.