Imagine you are in an averagely pleasant pub in Manhattan, talking to a couple of people, half-listening to the music being played from the ceiling speakers, until a song from the distant past makes you start listening closely.
The song is Homer Banks’ “60 Minutes of Your Love,” from 1966, which was not an American hit, but became a favorite in the English mod club-dancer’s canon of rediscovery called Northern Soul. Now this is a song: undiluted momentum from the first beat, one satisfying jolt after another. There you are, having an encounter with music’s past. You point at the ceiling in recognition. You realize that you have been pointing at the ceiling more often lately.
All right: “You” is really me. I am a music critic, for whom all songs carry some kind of coding. I would be paying attention anyway — but I have a feeling you’d have noticed that song too. A while after Homer Banks, Ruth Brown’s “Wild, Wild Young Men,” from 1953, came on. Ruth Brown is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and her song was a hit, rising to No. 3 on the R&B charts that year; even so, you’d need to have a pretty decent grip on the history of American music to know it by ear. Later, I heard a few southern rock-shuffles strung together, including ZZ Top’s famous “La Grange” and a more recent and more leaden one that I felt I should know and didn’t. (It bothered me that I didn’t.) And then, out of the blue: Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” a doughy song that seemed to be for some other place than this one, an early ’90s MTV hit which I suspect far more people know than like. It felt even more shallow than usual, by virtue of the depth that had preceded it.
Clearly, I was listening to a streaming-service algorithm. The overall sequence made no sense. The music in that place, while I was there, at first felt like a gift — and then like an encounter with an alien presence. It had “taste” — and then no-taste. (Not “tastelessness,” but an absence of so-called taste.) The signifiers had gone haywire.
Part of becoming an adult is learning to recognize cultural signifiers, which tell you something about where you are and who’s behind the bar and what kind of time you might be having before you leave. These signifiers (not just musical ones) always, in some way, have to do with history, with the past. That Blind Melon song retroactively soured the Homer Banks encounter a little. Also, I recognized that Homer Banks song, but what if I didn’t? The appropriate or typical response to it in our time might not be this is part of a tradition about which I want to know more, but rather: what the hell is this? And then, maybe, at best, a half-step further: What’s the footprint of this thing? How many views on YouTube? Who knew about it first? How did this escape me? How did it find me? And so on. A paradoxical reaction, both uninformed andconnoisseur-ish.
Here’s a different example. A few weeks ago, in my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify — constructed by an algorithm for someone of my data-set – came “Pourquoi Tu Me Fous Plus des Coups?,” an electro-pop love song, a good one, by the French-Vietnamese singer An Luu. I put its lyrics into a translation engine: The conceit of the song is domestic abuse — one of those he-hit-me-and-it-felt-like-a-kiss songs, a complicated and disconcerting trope that also comes up in Bessie Smith, Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Crystals and Lana Del Rey. I’d never heard of An Luu, so I looked her up online. Oh, okay — she’s an actor; she was in the movie Diva. I remember that. Otherwise, not much there. A YouTube video with about 10,000 views, and also a blog post about it written a few months ago by a media-studies Ph.D in Indiana. “I don’t know how or why Spotify recommended this track to me,” that Ph.D student wrote, “but I sure am grateful they did.” Like me, he was registering the surprise of secondary use. Meaning: He didn’t come to the song because something led him toward the work of An Luu, French-Vietnamese actor and singer, in and of herself. He came to it incidentally, because Spotify used it, within a playlist, as an act of seduction by orphaned data.
(The song was written, unsurprisingly, by two men — Jacques Duvall and Philipe Chany.) But Spotify won’t tell me any of that, because Spotify tells you very little. Instead, I’m given an encounter that ends with me wondering: What the hell is this? Nevertheless, now I recognize the song, for what it’s worth.
My sense is that such encounters, just like encountering little-known songs in movies and advertisements and new TV shows (such as when the funk-pop slow-dance “Amarsi Un Po” by Lucio Battisti, a wise and searching Italian pop singer of the ’70s and ’80s who never had any American audience whatsoever, appeared on Master of None last spring) are changing, perhaps subtly, what we are looking for from the past. And just as importantly, what we are getting.
I’m going to generalize for a minute. The new assumption we carry around is that we know most of what we need to know because of the considerable labor most of us put into using social media and streaming services. If you use them, think of how many ideas, observations, warnings, judgments, alarms, images, videos and sounds you absorb regularly. The neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has, by some wild math, estimated the information intake of a social-media user as similar to reading 175 newspapers per day. I would imagine this all leads us to feel we recognize what is “relevant” simply because we feel the fatigue of so much keeping up. If something escapes our attention, it must be pretty negligible. Relevance, as logic requires, is finite. If it weren’t, then everything would be relevant, and there would be no use for the concept. What really takes us by surprise is when we hear music that has perhaps never been important to our way of thinking but is somehow smuggled into our presence. We experience a feeling of temporary disbelief, or of being privy to an alternate reality. It’s lucky to get our attention.
Old music, reframed or brought into new circulation, can be as dynamic and unpredictable as new music. Its work is not done by the end of its own epoch. This was always so, but once, only a small number of people truly knew it; scholars, mostly, who understand that the past evolves by our understanding of its context. People like Mary Beard, the Cambridge professor of ancient Greek and Latin languages and history, who wrote in a 2012 essay that “the study of the Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves.”
College-radio DJs, a guild whose influence is disappearing, knew too. I was one during what I take to be the first great wave of reissued popular music, the mid-’80s. American roots music issued from little record labels in Massachusetts, California, Germany, England; Rounder, Arhoolie, Bear Family, Charly, Ace. (Reissues of funk, disco, electronic and psychedelic music came slightly later.) When Ace, an English label, released B. B. King’s music from the 1950s in an ongoing series of LPs during the mid-’80s, there was a sense that a presidential door had been unbolted. These extravagant outpourings of blues, massive and sophisticated and virtuosic, weren’t really accessible in any other way. There was no YouTube, no Amazon, no Discogs, no Spotify. Even when Ace made it available, this music would not probably reach you unless you moved toward it — and when you did, you committed yourself a little. (As the DJ and writer Jace Clayton remarked in his book Uproot, in the context of listening to streaming services, “surprise entails going toward the thing that you do not yet know, and ignorance involves stepping away from it.”) Here was the past as national library, offering you on the back cover what sober and legitimate context was required, but otherwise letting the work, in considerable quantities, stand for its own powerful self.
Around the same time came a different orientation to the past, typified by the Norton label, run by Miriam Linna and Billy Miller. Norton presented American music from the ’50s and ’60s as regional and eccentric and extreme. Hits, in Norton logic, were exceptions; the more common reality was a bunch of tapes made by nobodies like Hasil Adkins, Wade Curtiss and Jack Starr. “The idea was the discovery of stuff that was not available at all,” Linna told me. “We hated to call ourselves a reissue label — we wanted to find people whose music was never released.” Here was the past as delirious garage-cult fandom, with lots of information attached, and it was just as immersive as the legit kind — again, as long as you went toward it, rather than waiting for it to come toward you.
When I think about listening to those B.B. King records in 1986, I am thinking of a time when the role of music’s present was usually surprise, counter-argument and probable oblivion. The role of music’s past was confirmation, grounding, study and possible immortality. My sense is that these roles are being reversed. In 2014, Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify, said to the New Yorker journalist John Seabrook: “We’re not in the music space — we’re in the moment space.” This implies that music’s past could become a sequence of brief, discontinuous moments, like quick-fading Snapchat pictures.
Ten years ago, I thought the effect of widespread, immediate access to so much of the history of recorded music would be that the past would come to merge with the present. It would simply become another room in the house. I liked that idea, and I imagine Mary Beard would too. But it seems, instead, that the more likely use of the past, and the more profitable one, is as a weird or uncanny diversion. It delivers you a punch in the neck and then retreats back into a flat, non-hierarchical landscape.