Notes on Musical Cartography

When I often discuss musical appetites with people, I often hear “To be honest, I like all kinds of music, but I especially like [insert subgenre]”. I think this is true of most people- it is definitely true for myself. There is simply too much music out there- too much good music- for one to only adhere to a strict subgenre. I understand that some people enjoy more- or less variety- than others, however. For some, their preferred genre of music is intrinsic to their sense of identity; I believe the correct term for those who almost exclusively associate with death metal music to be “metalheads”. And that’s swell. It’s interesting actually, that a particular type of creative expression can resonate with certain people in such a strong way so as to create an entire community.

My roommates and I discuss music often. We have overlapping tastes, but we each have unique journeys as far as our acquisition of music. And sharing with one another our own musical landscapes is a source of intense interest, so I figured I would blog about it. I’ll start with my male roommate- I’ve caught him listening to all kinds of songs, from European electropop artists like MØ, to thrash metal/“harder-than-rock” bands like the inimitable Five Finger Deathpunch, and to older voices such as Billy Joel. He has a broad range of tastes and has supplied about 60-80% of my musical library, no exaggeration. But none of those artists- despite his fondness for them- really define him. There exists for people a deeper connection with music; there are the songs we enjoy, and then there are the songs that speak to us on an emotional or spiritual level, to which we attach larger-than-life qualities. I’ll explain what I mean in less abstract terms, but bear with me for a moment. For him- and for my other roommate (his high school sweetheart), the genre inextricably linked to their identities (both individual and collective) is Alternative or Punk Rock. I’m talking Yellowcard, The Offspring, and best of all, the incomparable Blink 182. If you were to meet him, he would say that he likes all music, but that he is drawn most of all to Alternative Rock, with Rap Music a close second. For her, her tastes are perhaps even broader; less sympathy is given to hard rock, but more to pop, Celtic Punk, even Country. But what unites them, what is so important to their identity- particularly as a couple- is the work of those Alternative Rock bands- American Hi Fi, Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20- that harken back to a time before I knew them, to memories I have to fill in with my imagination, to a nostalgia entirely their own.

But why is this relevant? Well I am going to let that last paragraph serve as a point of contrast, as I approach the crux of this blog post- the establishment of my own musical cartography. Since I have become friends with my roommates, my figurative library has expanded massively. I am going to share how I have received these songs, my own associations with them, and my relationship with music in general. The first and most important fact about myself is that before anything else I am a diehard Elvis fan. I have a lot that I love in my life; I am a brother, a friend, a son, a Cheesehead, a roommate, a creative writer, a blogger et cetera, but before all of that I am first and foremost an Elvis fan. My relationship with his songs arguably deserves its own post, but it’s important that I touch on it here as best as I can. I became a fan after my mom received a free CD with a small selection of his songs that came attached to the newspaper. She would play it in the kitchen whilst cooking or whatever, and I would come in and listen. By the time I was 12 I had firmly established myself as a fan of his work for life, and I got two CDs with about 65 of his songs altogether. I continued to listen to it all through my teenage years and my college days, culminating in a 2012 pilgrimage to Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee) during Elvis Week, where I came within just a few feet of Lisa Marie Presley.

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That is the first part of my musical makeup. However, despite being a huge Elvis fan, his work largely stands unaccompanied in my core library. What I mean is, whilst I like and enjoy other rockabilly songs- I don’t necessarily identify with them on that emotional level. I am more of an Elvis fan than I am a rockabilly fan in general. No, as far as the other half of my heart, that belongs to the genre of hard rock, which I consider to be my primary subcategory of music. My favorite band is Mountain, closely followed by contemporaries of the 60s and 70s such as The Rolling Stones, Blackfoot, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. These are the kinds of songs that I listen to when I am alone, when doing the dishes or folding laundry, or taking a shower. These are the kinds of songs that I consider “Michael songs” that exist without any kind of vivid association. They are to me, what Alternative Rock is to my roommates.

I mentioned earlier that our tastes overlap. I have grown to enjoy the works of Blink 182 and The Goo Goo Dolls especially, but they are not “quintessentially Michael” in their character. Perhaps now I am beginning to make more sense. Now that I have started to give you more of a profile of myself, I want to explore and examine that which I am most interested in- and which I am eager to know whether it exists in the same way with you, my readers. The songs outside of my self-discovered core library, which have been recommended to me by others, are so intriguing to me due to the way in which I came to acquire them. I am known for not falling for a song instantly. I will perhaps hear the same song played a dozen times in the stereo of my roommate’s black Chrysler Sebring “The Panther”, when all of a sudden, I will become quite enthralled by it. It has to be listened to at the right moment, at the exact time when I will associate it forever with a place, person, experience or emotion. Long after its discovery, my listening to it will always and forever recall a very specific nostalgia, an echo or an image in my mind’s eye, that can never be erased. We will now run through some specific examples, so that you do not think I am waffling, or being a pretentious pussywipe.

First up is a recent example. I have had a changeable relationship with classical music. It’s not a part of my identity, but a piece may resonate with me if given the proper association. It must be noted quickly that I don’t necessarily enjoy these associative songs any less than I do a given Elvis or Mountain song. They aren’t “pure Michael songs”, but on any given day I may prefer to listen to them above all else. There is no sense of superiority or inferiority here, only a difference in my conception of it. A few months ago I started listening to some classical music randomly, as I judged this to be the best and least intrusive accompaniment to my writing schedule. One of the pieces I listened to was Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, an absolute pimp of a composer from 19th century France. Seriously, this piece is indicative of a straight-up badass. It’s supposed to be based on a legend where, at the stroke of midnight every Halloween, Death plays his fiddle, which calls forth the dead from their graves, who start to dance for him. I learned all this from the comments section of the Youtube video, believe it or not. It is important knowledge, and you consider the song more closely upon gaining it. It is so full of whimsy- it’s like Leopold Stokowski’s score for Disney’s Fantasia– it evokes the majesty of a faerie tale, the violins with connotations of a sinister, Slavic horror, the whole thing a dance so wondrous you can’t help but be swept away, taken in by it’s strange Satanic depravity. But you want to know how this piece became immortalized in my associative library, don’t you? At the time I was reading Clive Barker’s horror novel Cabal, and in it there are undead, shapeshifting bloodsuckers, that dwell in the catacombs beneath the mausoleum of a graveyard, and venture out only at night. They are mostly sympathetic characters in the book- though no time is wasted in the establishment of their horrific and bestial side. They each seem fantastic and unique. It was only months later, that I started listening to Danse Macabre once more, and now every time I do, I am reminded of the events of Barker’s novel. I see the lovers Boone and Lori rushing throughout the wilderness of Canada’s Alberta Province, their struggles, their heartaches, their passion, their despair. I know, from my experiences past, that this association will stand for a long time.

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The next example concerns the songs my roommates have introduced to me over the past 5 years, and how they have found their way into my library, becoming absolute favorites of mine. The key thing to remember here is that they are songs which I would never have otherwise discovered, would never have listened to or sought out on my own, and if perchance I did hear them, I would likely have been disinterested. But I’ve opened up a great deal to all kinds of music in recent years. Firstly I want to introduce the song “Take It All Back” by the American rapper Huey Mack. It’s a grossly underappreciated song. But my roommate- the male- prides himself on uncovering the hidden gems of music. We would listen to upbeat pop and rap songs such as “Hello” and “Acapella” by Karmin and “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco that I strongly associated with being in The Panther and driving around Eau Claire at night. They captured the excitement and adventure I felt at grabbing some Half-Off Apps at Applebee’s or some ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery. The streetlights, the lighted windows of Mogies, sports bars, the traffic lights, the dipped headlights of cars. “Take It All Back” was a song that belonged to that group, but took on an even more specific association. We were driving one summer evening, turning from Fifth Avenue onto Water Street. On the corner is the Irish pub Dooley’s. Eau Claire is very much a “college town” whose identity is dominated by the university presence. Out on the streets were the spirits of summer. They were Blugolds without a doubt, living here for the summer. Perhaps they were juniors and seniors, enjoying the newfound independence of living out of their own house for the first time. We passed by these rambunctious crowds, and I remember us commenting on the revealing clothing of the girls. They were dressed in high heels, skin-tight black dresses with a plunging cleavage and so many thighs on display as to put KFC to shame. I don’t want to sound like I’m mocking or admonishing any of these girls based on the way they dress- I am simply observing. But it brings to mind the sorority girl stereotype. You can never truly know someone as you drive past them and look out of a car window. The imagination has to fill in the large open spaces, and you draw upon the stereotypes of our culture to help you out. I wondered at where their evenings would take them, what they would talk about, who they would meet. And Huey Mack’s song, which we were listening to as we drove past, came to fill in those large open spaces, it seemed to supply for me the information I was lacking, and I imagined the girls being like the girl the rapper describes in the song- spontaneous, wild, familiar with things foreign to me (smoking weed for instance!), and with an open, aggressive sexuality. They belong to a group of people in the social sphere I am curious about but have no access to; I see them walking in their loud parties on Water Street at nights- but where are they going and why? I had a friend from Eau Claire I visited a couple times, who actually lived on Water Street and who I felt might be more familiar with such girls. One time I visited him, and we were sitting in his living room, preparing for an adventurous (and for me, unfamiliar!) night out in the Twin Cities. In the corner of the room his friend was smoking a joint, and told us with glee about how this cheerleader was texting him, informing him of her breakup with her boyfriend, and being very forward and not in the least bit subtle about her desire to get close with him. I remember his amusement at her interest, and the subsequent song-and-dance routine in which he broadcasted how he was going to get ferociously laid down the line. It’s all a world that’s never closer than an arm’s length to me, but which I nonetheless find intriguing as I do all things.

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Hopefully by now I am starting to make more sense. As I conclude this post, I want to remind you to comment if you experience music this way too. Let me know if I’m mad. I first heard the song “Emmylou” at the end of a long playlist which had entertained us all the way from western Wisconsin to the eastern edge of the state, when we turned onto the long country road on which my roommate’s family lives. The song may very well have been on in my presence before, but I did not truly hear it until we turned onto that road. My friend lives on a Native American Reservation near Green Bay, WI, and either side of the road are trees. Hearing the song always brings me back to that bright summer afternoon, the branches and all the greenery blowing softly. It might sound like sappy horseshit but it’s true- I swear. I can’t listen to it and not be taken back. It’s not so much the place as it is the feeling. My nervous excitement at meeting his family for the first time, our collective fatigue after a 4 hour car ride, the sentimental mood that put us in. “Well we’re finally here, my favorite road in the whole world” he seemed to say, as if he knew exactly how long and how often I had imagined coming here. It had existed hitherto only in stories, his own nostalgia, family trivia, which upon listening I had attached a romantic, mythical quality. It was as if his house, his family, the Fox River, and the whole of Green Bay, were not made real until I stepped foot there. They didn’t exist until I discovered them. They were stories.

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I could go on. I could talk about my association of “Remember the Name” by Fort Minor with (in my opinion) the greatest athlete of all time Michael Jordan, or I could point to songs such as “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls that evoke memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor of my best friend’s room in Towers North- 459- and having manly “heart-to-heart” conversations. The latter is a song often prescribed to me when I let my roommates know that I’m having a depressive episode. I can’t listen to Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” without recalling a wild drive with my friends I took to the Twin Cities in 2012 to see my first NBA game (GO BUCKS!). I can’t hear Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” without remembering the drive back, when we all sang it and I was an emotional prick- despite being familiar with the song for years and previously being very indifferent to it. Car rides are especially vivid for me, as you can tell. John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” brings me back to the second-leg of an epic cross-country road trip, and the sadness I was overcome by at saying goodbye to my friend in Houston, Texas. The associations are both happy and sad, but I enjoy all of the songs. Hopefully I have given a coherent account of the “soundtrack of my life” or whatever term you wanna come up with. It is an endless source of fascination for me and my roommates, and I have enjoyed sharing it with you. Vowles Out.

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