Teen sensation

By Anwen Crawford
In the midst of a pandemic, people are reverting to the music they loved – and found solace in – as teenagers

© ephotocorp / Alamy Stock Photo

Anecdotal evidence has a particularly weak appeal at present, when the world is hungry for the certainty of numbers. Anecdotally, nevertheless – in text messages from friends, in phone conversations and in the pattern of my own days, which have been lonelier than even I, who live alone and work alone, could have previously countenanced – I have sensed a tendency: in the midst of a pandemic, people are reverting to the music they listened to and loved as teenagers, or even as children. More than this – and here I speak only for myself – I find that I am listening to music much as I did when I was teenaged, when I found in it both a shelter against impersonal forces and a passage to somewhere less capricious and more true, where people sang and played what they really meant, and each moment was redeemed by its organisation into sound.

No doubt this sense of having fallen through a wormhole back to the emotional terrain of adolescence is heightened, in my case, by not being on social media. (There are plenty of adults, born later than me, whose memories of adolescence must be entirely bound up with platforms like Facebook.) Whatever gigs are being cobbled together on Instagram Live, whichever dances are currently circulating on TikTok, I’m not seeing or hearing them. In the former case, certainly, I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Being a stubborn believer in cultivated mystery, once so crucial to the allure of pop musicians, I have no desire to watch said musicians in their living rooms, playing songs in the daylight. Ugh, no! Give me back the ritual of the gig, where performers materialise out of darkness and then, at show’s end, melt into it again, leaving me none the wiser as to their taste in house plants or coffee-table ornaments. I miss the darkness, the volume and the pressure of live music: the pressure of collective expectation and emotion, of physical proximity, and even of time. Half the pleasure of a gig is knowing that it will end, and half its power comes from recognising that if you wander away in the middle of things, you break the illusion that’s created by a concentration of bodies, sound and purpose.

At first, when each day of this felt more urgent than the last, I was keeping notes on my listening. In late March it was The Beatles, to whom I listen only infrequently but turned to at that moment for the sensation of a global phenomenon that wasn’t also a global emergency. Alone in my rented flat, as I watched delivery pallets pile up outside the small supermarket on the opposite side of the street, I marvelled once again at how songs so familiar – songs that form some of my earliest memories, preceding any visual recollections – can still sound new, even unorthodox.

I find this particularly true of early Beatles recordings: “Love Me Do”, “She Loves You”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”. The Beatles’ utterly unassailable position at the heart of popular music history has tended to make the idea of these songs – the ideal of them, one could say – into something sleekly accomplished, juggernauts that flattened all before them. But the artefacts themselves don’t sound this way. These early recordings hide nothing of the songs’ compositional machinery or of the musicians’ enthusiasm, and it’s that quality of gaucheness that can still catch me unawares. This, along with the fact that the vocal harmonies originate from an era before mass culture but are mapped onto the kind of pop utterances – “yeah, yeah, yeah” and ”no, no, no”, “ooooh” and “owwww” – that few groups before The Beatles embraced so unashamedly. So much from so little! Perhaps that was the lesson, here, and perhaps that’s also why I turned to these songs: because the limit of my lived world had become (and currently remains) so modest. That’s a childhood sensation, but as children we don’t resist it so bitterly, having little idea that the world is larger than whatever is within reach, or within view.

Also common to childhood, and even more so to the turmoil of adolescence, is a lack of personal agency, which we experience as an injustice: why is the world so arbitrary, and so indifferent to our wants and fears? During adolescence this sense can be deepened by our growing comprehension of the world’s complexity, but also of the cant and cruelty that underpins so many social and political structures. I feel, at present, if not a renewed naivety then certainly a refreshed sense of bewilderment: why the callous indifference from federal government towards rental tenants, for instance, or the neglect of international students? Well, I know why. A short overview of the past century will reveal the extent to which those without material wealth are punished, in order that the rich might continue to accumulate the same. But knowledge doesn’t diminish my consternation, and, limited to whatever is within walking distance of my own bedroom, I once again feel powerless and entirely uncertain of the future – more than a little afraid of it, in fact.

Back then, as a brooding teenager in my bedroom, or on long moody walks around the neighbourhood with only a walkman for company, I’d listen to music with a commingled sense of wonder and anguish. It was as if music might yet salvage a world that seemed designed to quash wonder and consign anguish to the realm of personal weakness. Something of that state has returned to me now. In part, I’m sure, it’s because the spaces in which I can listen to music are restricted – as they were then – to the domestic and the local. I find music becoming, once again, a primary means to illuminate imaginative terrains beyond the self, and to allay loneliness; music is a portal when actual movement is curtailed.

The intensified boundary between domestic and public space has something to do, I think, with the acclaim lavished on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the fifth album by American singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, which was released in mid April. The record’s backstory brims with moral instruction for our coronavirus era: Apple, who largely shuns the public eye, spent years recording the album at home, using the instruments she had there. If only we could all be so resourceful! (If only we all had the time.) Piano and percussion are the mainstays, and though the production of these songs is deliberately rough – the title track ends with Apple’s dogs barking in the background – they are elaborately structured and entirely maximalist in spirit. For my part, I resist the maximalism, as well as the sense that I’m being propelled through the songs by the lyrics – which are meticulous – while consequently being denied the chance to dwell amid the sound, as sound. But I also recognise that Apple’s authorial force is a large part of why she knocks listeners out, and especially now. Here’s someone who has built a universe dense with meaning, as much to protect her from the existing world as to argue with it.

I wake from odd, friendly dreams that star the musicians I loved as a teenager. In my dreams they’re working in shops, as I did then. Guilt is mixed in here, I’m sure. Having mostly worked in bookshops for a living until my thirties, I feel, in waking life, a sense of having dodged the proximate danger that’s being experienced by all retail workers due to the virus. So shops turn up in my dreams, as spaces of work in which my old fantasy of escape from them has resurfaced, because the unlikeliest employees are serving there. Friends tell me they’ve been dreaming of teenage idols, too. I phone my brother, who makes a living from building guitars, or did, until his workplace stood him down a month ago. In an age of streaming, I find it as easy as anyone to forget that music has a material basis, that it is made by people putting their hands to things, and that those things, whether guitars or laptops, are made, in turn, by people using their hands. I revisit a black-and-white clip of Nina Simone playing live in 1968. “I got my arms, got my hands / Got my fingers, got my legs”, she sings, and I watch her hands move over the piano’s keyboard, and imagine that she’s right here in the same room as me.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

© ephotocorp / Alamy Stock Photo

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