I’m frustrated with music, but I realize now that a lot of the problem is me. Whenever a new song — album — by an artist or band I love is released, I find myself eagerly anticipating it, and then subsequently being let down once it graces my ears. I have to give it a few listens before I can even determine if I like it or not, and a lot of times, it does end up growing on me — but it’s the fact that it has to grow on me in the first place that’s the problem. Why do I have to try so hard to like music by an artist or band who’s older music used to resonate with me instantly? Should it have to grow on me? Shouldn’t I just know if I like it instantly? Does it mean that it’s bad music?
A conversation I had with a friend earlier this year got me thinking about this very subject. It was a couple days following the release of Ariana Grande’s newest album, Sweetener. My friend was playing a track in the car from the album that I wasn’t sold on yet. “What do you think about the album?” I said. He paused for a moment before replying. “It’s growing on me,” he said. We talked about some of (what I thought were) the stronger tracks on the record and some of the weaker ones. He wasn’t so much convinced that there were bad tracks, rather he just needed to sit with the album for some time. “It’s almost like you’re willing yourself to like it,” I said. “No,” he replied. “I just have to get used to what the music is and not what I wanted it to be. Doesn’t mean it’s bad.” He was right, and the conversation stuck with me. I realized the reason I was having such a tough time liking any of Grande’s new music was because I wanted a certain type of music from her and didn’t get it.
I remember the days when you didn’t have to let the music grow on you. In fact, you liked it so much that you eventually got sick of it. Maybe it’s just because I lived in a golden age of the early to late 2000’s when almost every modern artist and band was releasing the music that would forever define them. Fergie can never top “Fergalicous”. Everyone will always sing in unison to Panic! At The Disco’s “Nine in the Afternoon”. Did The Killers actually do anything after “Mr. Brightside”? Nobody knows. Maybe the songs I listened to in middle and high school are forever ingrained into my brain as being something special, and I put it on a pedestal, never really allowing newer music to impinge on me the same way.
For example, “The Hell Song” by Sum 41 was very special to 8th grade me, but now I realize it was mainly because I feared that my mother would discover I had a song with the word “hell” in the title in my iTunes library and felt rebellious listening to it. Or Katy Perry’s “Circle The Drain” from her Teenage Dream album. That song was released as a promotional single the week I started my senior year and I listened to it every morning for about a month on my way to school. I associate that song with the beginning of the end of high school, the end of my childhood. It was the beginning of the last year I would have with friends I’d grown up with and the end of a much different me.
Writing about music has kind of become a double-edged sword for me. The more I’ve written about music the last few years, I’ve inadvertently grown an overly critical ear. While it’s made me look at music deeper and appreciate artists, songs, and albums in a new way, I’ve also gotten myself to a place of such analyzation with music that I have a hard time even allowing myself to simply enjoy it without looking for flaws, and music (in my opinion) isn’t something we should have to work to enjoy.
For me, social media has played a huge role in this. Where Twitter and Instagram have become invaluable tools for artists and bands over the last decade, it’s also hurt our expectations. Taylor Swift’s rollout plan for reputation is a great recent example. When Swift wiped her social media and began the cryptic posting across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, the part of my brain that loved so much of her earlier work immediately hyped and put a song and album that hadn’t even been released yet on the same level as her earlier work. Clearly, it would be just as good. Swift had never let me down before. What would be different about this time?
The release of reputation left me polarized for the better part of the first weekend of its release. I didn’t get it. But that didn’t really have anything to do with Swift, it was me. It was the expectations I put on her and her music to be something I wanted. I looked too much into it and let my brain run wild. After a few days, once I had put away my expectations, and gave it another full listen, I became obsessed with it and it has gone on to become some of my favorite work from Swift. Unfortunately, this has become a usual pattern for me. But I’m working on it. I try to catch myself now and go, “No, give it a chance. Go into it with an open mind.” Just because an artist or band released an album or song that I loved doesn’t mean they’re going to release the same kind of material again. But that also doesn’t mean it’s not just as good. Noticing you have a problem is the first step, right?
Then again, artists like Beyonce with her surprise releases have also set a precedent that even she might have a hard time living up to in the future. She’s made her music an event (like it should be) but in doing that, if she ever just decided to simply send out a press release that she’s releasing a new song, you’re going to be let down. Even if the music is good. It’s inevitable. You come to expect a certain kind of release, and when you don’t get it, it can impinge on how you view the material. And vice versa.
There’s also the obvious flip side that some artists and bands just aren’t making the kind of music they use to — and for various reasons. Some have hit their creative peaks and that’s just that, and we need to admit it and accept it. We’re not going to immediately love every single song our favorite band or artist releases, but just because our ears might not be instantly appeased also doesn’t mean the music isn’t good. Having to sit with an album more than once isn’t always a sign that it’s weak work, just work you weren’t expecting and therefore have to spend a little more time with. Some of my favorite records are the ones that I had to listen to more than once, and I’ve been better for it.
Did I get to the root of the problem here? I don’t know. There are valid arguments to be made on all sides. I still hate that I have to work a little harder to like music these days, but if trying a little harder means I discover music that comes to mean a lot to me, then I’ll do it. If anything, I hope you’ll take a better look at how you consume music and the expectations you put on it. We have to try and take our own preconceived notions out of it and meet the music where it’s at. If not, we’re going to be stuck in a vortex of comparison and being let down constantly, and honestly? It’s tiring. Let the music breathe, let it grow actually become something to you.