Old songs keep me grounded

Old songs keep me grounded

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2018 - 12:00am

And this is the part where I say something insufferably old-man-screaming-at-kids-at-his-lawn: the songs I have known and loved since I was young are the only ones left that matter.

I am old. I am not retired or dining out at a perpetually discounted rate or anything, but demographically speaking, I am no longer part of the “youth.” At a time when technological fashion changes at a faster rate than ever before and the people who are able to keep up are getting younger than ever before, I would probably be, by 20th century standards, 68 years old.

But this is not your grandfather’s generation gap. I don’t think any new song was written by the devil or that TV is making people dumber. My obsolescence is a lot subtler. For one thing, the music of my youth is not deemed uncool by the younger generation — quite the opposite is true. I had no idea, as a fourth grader listening to a largely ignored band called The Smiths, that Morrissey and Johnny Marr would be considered more influential than John Lennon and Paul McCartney by 21st century hipsters. I would have never predicted, as a teenager listening to My Bloody Valentine’s To Here Knows When until my mixtape wore out, that shoegaze would be so popular with the babies that it would become the template crutch for indie bands lacking charisma and talent.

I’m not really out of step when it comes to music because music is no longer a train moving forward in a straight line; it’s now a DeLorean time machine popping up randomly in different eras. This entire decade has basically been an algorithm-generated playlist culled from the entire history of pop music. Synth-pop, ’80s Top 40, ’90s lo-fi, old-fashioned soul, early-aughts emo — they are happening all at once. This is not a value judgement; this is just what happens when the internet becomes the primary music source. Time is a flat circle and it has turned into the Spotify logo.

What’s giving me generational vertigo is not “new” music per se. It’s the sheer plethora. There’s just so much of it out there and they’re bleeding in with all the old ones that I haven’t heard before and eventually they just become one big puddle. If you’re listening to any random song in 2018, you couldn’t possibly tell if it was released this month or in 1982. Time is now an illusion and all music that ever was and ever will be exist simultaneously in whatever streaming service houses this new reality. This sounds like a good thing until you’re in Year 5 of this ongoing sonic buffet, that satiating point when things start to get a bit depressing and you just want to take a nap.

The problem with new music in the age of unlimited access is that it just doesn’t stick. I don’t know how it is with younger people but I can’t imagine how they’ll stay madly in love with a song they heard a week ago when they’re part of the most musically promiscuous generation ever. Even I, who learned how to love songs deeply during the music droughts of my childhood, can’t stay enamored of a new song for long stretches anymore. Just a few months ago this song called In Undertow by the band Alvvays was my jam and now — a couple of dozen Spotify Discover Weekly playlists and internet finds later — I can’t even remember the last time I played it.

And this is the part where I say something insufferably old-man-screaming-at-kids-at-his-lawn but is nonetheless true: in an age that essentially amounts to the musical Wild West, the songs I have known and loved since I was young are the only ones left that matter. They are the compass that gives me direction in a terrain that has lost all structure. They point me to my North.

I have a Spotify playlist of early- to mid-‘90s British indie pop that I always fall back on when I grow tired of the deluge. It brings me back to a specific time in my teenage years when secrets could still be kept and you could build worlds with them. One song in particular, You As Just A Memory by a band called The Hit Parade, demonstrates the power of old songs at the end of one’s youth. It’s an intimate and sparse pop song with only a piano and a man’s boyish voice, singing as if alone in a music room where everyone has left and gone home, and it starts off with the words: “Stay with me ‘til I grow old / we’ll find something better there I know.” Later in the chorus the man cries out, “It’s time for me to break and leave you as just a memory” and the piano underneath clings helplessly to the last word. It’s a perfect, sad love song that I used to listen to whenever I wanted to feel needlessly wistful. Maybe it was from the future all along: a genuine emotion that’s ahead of its time, slipping through a tiny hole in the Spotify-time continuum.

There are literally thousands of other songs I can discover every day but I now know that this incredible access isn’t exactly what I need. What we all need are songs that mean so much for so long, they become us. I used to make fun of old people who listen to the same old song over and over again and they would usually just smile and sing along, oblivious to the ridicule. It turns out they’ve already found the secret to happiness.

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