Don't Trust Anyone Over 30 (about the music they liked as a teen)

I’ve started my own reading challenge! I call it “read all the books you’ve picked up on the street or from little free libraries or from book sales or gifts before you read anything else!” Catchy, right?

First up is a book I think I got on the street when someone was moving or just cleaning out their bookshelves. It’s Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector by Mick Brown.

Really enjoying the book so far. I’m just at the embarrassing flop of “River Deep, Mountain High.” Here’s something that jumped out at me: at one point in the book, Jerry Wexler is quoted thusly on Phil’s famed “Wall of Sound”: “That gargantuan leakage, everything leaking out of everyone else’s mike, was something we guarded against fanatically at Atlantic. To me it was like a muted roar. I didn’t like it, and I still don’t like it.”

I was taken aback, because while I’ve always heard that Phil Spector was mentally ill and thought that he fucked up both Let it Be and End of the Century, and of course, he’s a murderer, the genius of the Wall of Sound is just something that’s always been a given in any discussion of 20th century pop music.

I wanted to listen to the songs I was reading about and I have always liked those songs, so I queued up a bunch and found…Jerry Wexler was right. They sound shitty. Now don’t get me wrong, they’re still genius pop songs (though, lyrically, it’s a lot of moon/june dance/romance bullshit), but the sound is very dated. You can listen to Motown songs from the same era, and they don’t sound like they were recorded inside a garbage can. More like Wall of Mud, amirite?

It’s fun to read about how the recording sessions were fun chaos because they’d have like 5 guitar players and 3 piano players and two drummers and a crowd of randos shaking tambourines and stuff, but, like, why? Why do you have five guitarists playing a guitar line you can’t even really distinguish in the final mix?

The history of the first two decades of rock and roll was written by boomer critics who were teenagers in the late fifties and early sixties. And so here, at last, we arrive at my point: absolutely nobody is to be trusted about the quality of music that came out when they were teenagers.

The music is just too deeply entwined with the operatic rollercoaster of adolescence, when your feelings are so big you feel like they might break out of you at any minute, and hearing a song that taps into that is a tremendous relief. Everybody wants to feel seen.

But, ultimately, this doesn’t mean that the work of art that affects you so profoundly in those years is going to have the same effect on someone else years later. Tastes change, the culture changes, and what seems like a timeless work of genius might just be the thing that made you feel less alone when you were fifteen.

I certainly include myself in the “absolutely nobody” above. I will happily tell you that Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” is a timeless pop masterpiece, and maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just that it was playing on the car radio when I was in the back seat and my friend and his girlfriend were in the front and I was luxuriating in the delicious melancholy of my latest unrequited crush and the harmony on the chorus seemed to capture my feeling perfectly.

But you’re not me, and you didn’t have this experience with this song. It’s tempting, when you feel like everyone else likes something, to go along. I pretended to like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for a long time until I realized that whatever people liked about that record wasn’t speaking to me. (also it’s an artistic dead end that leads to the self-indulgence of prog rock, whereas the albums that preceded it set the stage for decades of delicious power pop.)

But you’re allowed your own taste, and you can and should be very skeptical of praise that anyone lavishes on a song that came out when they were teenagers.

(I cut a few paragraphs from this, but I just need to say Pet Sounds also sucks a lot, Rod Stewart’s voice is annoying, and that scene in Almost Famous where they sing “Tiny Dancer” was so mawkish and embarrassing it made me want to crawl under my seat.)

#books #music