Out of Time NOT Out of Mind - Paying Attention to the Future NOW
MUSIC is not a GENRE - Season 4 Episode #4
ALL ABOUT IT
There’s a lot of great music. There’s even a lot of exceptional music. Just look at Rolling Stone’s recent 500 lists, and then think of all the albums & songs that WEREN’T included but could or should have been. Some of that music is judged to be great when it’s first released. Others weren’t seen as great until time moved on and they were put in context.
For music to stand the test of time, it has to do three things:
1. Be good to begin with. This seems like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of albums judged to be great upon release that have since been revealed to have way less substance and quality. That first judgment might have been based on some novelty of sound, production, instrumentation or context. All of those things tend to get subsumed into the new normal, at which point that first iteration is seen in a very different light, one that might show it was the newness and not the quality that made it so popular.
2. Age well. Music that is its own thing regardless of whether it touches in on trends almost always ages well. Music that adheres too closely to current trends without breathing something more personal into it rarely holds up. That means it has to survive multiple shifts in sound & taste. Albums and artists go in and out of fashion all the time. Producers & listeners want more minimalism (and yes it’s possible to have more of less, so definitely quote me on that) so artists who produce layered or complex music aren’t as popular. And vice versa. It’s the albums that are considered great regardless of these changes that will be great forever.
3. Reveal itself more fully over time. Tons of music can captivate an audience on first listen, especially if it’s introducing something new, or recontextualizing something else. Way less music bears repeated listening. That doesn’t mean it’s not good, just that it maybe doesn’t have much else going on besides what we’ve already gotten from it. It’s even rarer that repeated listening reveals the beauty of songs, performances or production choices that weren’t picked up on all those years prior.
This week’s podcast is all about that last idea. Let’s say there’s an album that’s a huge success. Popular and influential. Only a handful of the songs are hits, and those are the ones most people know. As time passes, most people forget the rest of the album, and even some of the hits if they’re not perennials. But it wasn’t just the hits that were critically acclaimed, it was the whole album. Odds are that every track on that album is good and worthy of another listen.
When the album was released, current tastes dictated that certain songs would rise to the top. Good as the other songs might be, they didn’t hit the cultural moment in the same way. They were somehow out of their time – going future to fast or retro too soon. As seen from the vantage of decades later, several things change. First, the out-of-time-ness doesn’t apply. Technology, sound, performance & composition have moved on and added so much more that whatever differences there seemed to be between one track or another are negligible. Second, our cultural touchstones are a totally different mix. They include a lot of what existed then, but in a new context. And they include a whole bunch of stuff that could only exist now.
So those songs end up making a totally different impression. You might hear a song from that great album and wonder why you didn’t love it the first time around. You might hear a song you know and love but never realized how awesome that keyboard part or backup harmony is. You feel you could never have picked up on any of this before because the context was different. You didn’t know then what you know now. It took time and experience to show you what you missed, and nothing less would do.
But is that true? Some people did hear those things and did acknowledge their greatness when they were first released. Which means however difficult it might be to appreciate something not of its time, it’s possible. It takes attention and openness to consider that what seems uncomfortable or extraneous might be what the future needs.
It’s like that for just about everything. Think of social change. Someone introduces an idea that seems so radical and forward thinking that it’s dismissed out of hand, or worse never even paid attention to. That potential pioneer languishes in obscurity until time passes and their idea is put in a new context. Now that we’ve experienced so much more change, we understand how vital their idea was even then. But just like with music, there were people at that time who understood immediately how crucial it was, how necessary for the future. Which again means it’s possible. Not just for them. For all of us.
There are ideas right now that deserve more attention and consideration. Ideas that seem radical or impossible to achieve that could be right around the corner if more of us listen, understand, and believe. Pick one idea you’ve heard in these last tumultuous two years, one that makes you uncomfortable or incredulous. Chances are that’s our future, and the sooner we respect that, the sooner we get to something better. For all of us.