Jeremy D. Larsen, writing for Pitchfork, uses the riotous 1913 Paris debut performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to illustrate the difficulty our brains have in enjoying new music. The performance, to perhaps understate the effect, took its audience outside of their sonic comfort zones.
Many members of the audience could not fathom this new music; their brains—figuratively, but to a certain extent, literally—broke. A brawl ensued, vegetables were thrown, and 40 people were ejected from the theater. It was a fiasco consonant with Stravinsky’s full-bore attack on the received history of classical music, and thus, every delicate sense in the room.
He goes on to explain why new music, truly different music, is so hard for us to enjoy.
People love the stuff they already know. It’s a dictum too obvious to dissect, a positive-feedback loop as stale as the air in our self-isolation chambers: We love the things we know because we know them and therefore we love them. But there is a physiological explanation for our nostalgia and our desire to seek comfort in the familiar. It can help us understand why listening to new music is so hard, and why it can make us feel uneasy, angry, or even riotous.
I’ve often read that our musical tastes solidify somewhere in the late high school/college years. I like to think I’m an exception to that, because I still spend a fair amount of time seeking out new music. I read music blogs and diligently check out their recommendations. I listen to the Apple New Music playlist that is algorithmically curated for me every Friday, comparing my list with my wife’s. I make a new playlist every month, comprised of mostly fresh tracks (with some evergreens thrown in for good measure).
How exceptional am I really, though? Is the new music I like that much different than what I would have liked in the past? Is it really challenging me?
For example, one of my new favorite songs is “I Feel Alive” by the band TOPS. The band describes itself as “a raw punk take on AM studio pop,” though it feels like more of the latter. So of course I like it! The band itself is fairly new, but I got introduced to music by AM studio pop in the seventies and I spent my high school years listening to punk.
It is true that I do listen to things that I wouldn’t have in high school. Don’t tell anyone, but I didn’t really like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless when it came out. I can’t imagine having enjoyed the Velvet Underground at the same time I was exploring industrial bands. However, the noisy rock and quiet modes of the VU did influence a lot of the bands I listened to in high school and college, so again, eventually liking them is hardly a stretch. I never would have been into sophistipop in the nineties, but having grown up in the eighties, I was able to appreciate it more when teenage angst died down.
I plan to keep exploring new music, but I don’t expect my tastes to change in a revolutionary way. Whenever I so much as look at the band/artist names that are trending on Apple Music, I’m just not sure what to make of them.
I’m happy that my tastes didn’t get stuck in a lock groove in 1994, but I’m also cognizant that there is a familiarity and sometimes nostalgia with even the new music that I appreciate.
It’s worth noting that I don’t like a lot of the stuff I did in my teens. Those industrial bands didn’t stick with me, and neither did hip hop or ska or half a dozen other genres I threw myself into for a while.