Alex Macpherson, “Public Enemy are rubbish? If only more classic albums got this treatment …,” The Guardian, July 17, 2012
I nodded my head with recognition at this because I did the same thing once upon a time — also when I was 19, incidentally — and like Lex, I found it rather a dispiriting experience. The best lesson I learned from that period of my life was that setting yourself homework is the worst way to experience art.
And yet, my story of engaging with the canon only to realize its worthlessness is only partially true. My eager absorption of the classics is not something I could or would want to repeat now, but I did get something out of it at the time. Forcing myself to seek out the music and movies and books that popular consensus had deemed unimpeachable made me realize that many of those works weren’t worth the acclaim, but it also expanded my horizons and introduced me to things I genuinely did enjoy — or even love.
And I can’t do that anymore. I can’t embrace the worth of a project of watching “classic” films and reading “classic” books and listening to “classic” records the way I did in my first year of university, even though there are so many of those that I still haven’t watched, read, or heard. (Perhaps one thing I’m better aware of now is the number of non-classic works I haven’t experienced.) But the period of my life shaped by an insatiable desire to conquer the canon had some worth, beyond even realizing the eventual worthlessness of such a desire.
I would lie on my back and “get moved” — I honestly hadn’t listened closely to pop music like this, in what I would call dorm fashion, tired, inert, just listening carefully for sounds and words, letting the music act not as soundtrack but as appreciation object. I don’t listen quite like that anymore, either — too many forced “revelations,” too much effort transforming mere boredom into something more thoughtful. It was like a performance for myself: I am going to listen to this to really HEAR something. I think it was helpful — I was quick to notice structure and attitude and feeling I may not have heard otherwise — but there was something mildly phony about it, as though I was as busy convincing myself of the music’s importance as I was understanding why I genuinely liked it. And I did genuinely like it — loved the post-Rubber Soul Beatles records particularly, all of which I bought that summer, loved just about everything I listened to, really — but I was also fitting it into an ambiguous narrative I saw for the music, something that set me apart from others in understanding not just why the music was good, but why the music mattered.
Throughout my own music listening history, few experiences have been as dispiriting as the brief period when, as a 19-year-old, I conscientiously attempted to plough through several “classic albums”, even reading up on them in the vain hope that this information would make the dreary music coming out of my speakers suddenly click in my brain. None of it ever seemed as vibrantly, vitally alive as the music I was actually thrilled by at the time.