Music is a time machine
November 28, 2017 4:59 PM   Subscribe

“I was struck by an emotion so powerful and raw that I had a hard time identifying it at first: grief. I sood there in that ecstatic crowd and mourned. I mourned all of us dumb kids. I mourned our graying hair and slackening bodies. I mourned some unnameable forgotten truth I used to know. I mourned Harold. I'd thought I was there for nostalgia; turns out I was there for an opportunity to grieve that I didn't know I'd needed”
Young and Dumb Inside (SLNewYorker), a comic by Emily Flake about an adolescence spent in an underground music scene, and the mid-life nostalgia of the former kids to whom music meant everything.
posted by acb (41 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
We had a lovely scene like this where I grew up. (Northern Virginia, late 90s/early 00s.) I was too shy to really take part. I always wished I had. Thanks for sharing this.
posted by capricorn at 5:05 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]

this is fantastic! i've been a fan of emily flake's since her lulu eightball days. wild to see her in the new yorker now, and yet it makes so much sense -- her style has always kinda been 'new yorker cartoon by way of toothpaste for dinner but somehow with more whimsy/dread'.
posted by halation at 5:13 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]

I read this earlier - so beautifully true.
posted by 41swans at 5:16 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]

This is great! The names, clothes, and music can change, but teen angst (or whatever it is) remains the same. Never heard of her, never heard of Jawbreaker. Thanks.
posted by freakazoid at 5:25 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]

I spent my late teens and 20s primarily in the world that Flake is talking about, and I found this sad. Not because I'm old, but because she seems to equate getting older with defeat, passivity, and disconnection. I can understand mourning an old friend, but she needs to get off Spotify and seek out the many folks now who are playing shows and making vibrant art now, and not just for a backward-looking cash in.

DIY isn't just for kids, and it didn't end with the 90s. To be mired in nostalgia honestly seems like missing the entire point of what we were doing back then.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:33 PM on November 28 [18 favorites]

she needs to get off Spotify and seek out the many folks now who are playing shows and making vibrant art now

Her art seems pretty vibrant to me. ˉ\_(ツ)_/ˉ
posted by Sys Rq at 5:42 PM on November 28 [31 favorites]

There are lots of bands playing shows these days, but you're never a fan when you're a 40 year old like you were when you were 15. There's no soundtrack to middle aged life like there is to your teen-aged life. You're never going to link some song to your first kiss or your first sleepover or the time you took your friends to the beach in your new car and Shannon got sand all over the backseat. Your 15 year old brain is still pliable and full of new hormones. Emotions are rawer and memories are stickier.
posted by AFABulous at 5:57 PM on November 28 [44 favorites]

Aw, it didn't feel like she was slamming the modern day or her own life or anything like that to me, just that she was expressing the loss that's undeniable because no matter how great your adult life is or today's music scene is, your youth really truly is dead, and sometimes there's just this wild reminder to the tune of, idk, Bright Eyes?

Flight of the Conchords had a bit on this in the most recent tour: Have they changed? "We've gotten older," Jemaine says onstage in Mountain View, "and we realize that, uh, when you see people on TV and they get older and you see them again—"

"It can be quite confronting," Bret interrupts.

"It's confronting," Jemaine agrees. "We know, and we know it makes you feel uncomfortable and reminds you of your own aging process and ultimately your own mortality."

posted by peppercorn at 6:00 PM on November 28 [7 favorites]

I love you, please make me young again

My heart. I'm feeling this too heavily right now.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:08 PM on November 28 [15 favorites]

I empathize with this cartoon. My kid is about to turn 15, and I look at him and remember how at his age, I would sneak out of the convent, and hitchhike into London, and then tube into Camden, where I would lose myself in punk crowds. Thatchers London was a great place to be an angry nihilist.

Had I only known I should have saved up all that rage and nihilism for my 50s.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 6:25 PM on November 28 [16 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this. Wouldn't have come across this otherwise. It was excellent. Slightly different scene and period, but reminds me of the first time I read Coupland's 1000 Years (Life After God).

The last time I returned to my college/high school town I felt a similar sense of longing. The town had changed, the old hangouts were now franchises. The old bars were gone; new clubs had sprouted up. I know there were probably new spots, but I wouldn't know how to find them.

I thought I'd wanted to return to the town, but obviously that wasn't true. I wanted to go back to that time and that version of me. I wanted to see my old friends as teenagers again. I wanted to go to shows and not have responsibilities. That being said, I'm probably happier now than I was back then.

The Emily Flake piece expresses those feelings perfectly.
posted by Telf at 6:36 PM on November 28 [16 favorites]

I’m about the same age as Emily. I went to Riot Fest too.
This really hit a sweet/sore spot with me.

As much as I’ve tried to hold on to so much of the good stuff from my punk adolescence, and I still go to lots and lots of shows, I’m struggling with the old friendships. Yeah, my high school boyfriend killed himself too.
But now as we age some of us have thrived, some struggled, and some gotten worse. The drugs are claiming lots of us, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate this. At this point, a friend of a friend is facing drug-related murder charges.
I’m a professional. I’m over 40. House kids pets marriage.
I don’t know how to pull the good out from the bad.
posted by littlewater at 6:58 PM on November 28 [8 favorites]

For me, the main thing that changed between my teenage music-life attachment years and now is my reaction to lyrics. I have become more ready to call out unoriginality, corniness, pretension, false posturing.

On the other hand, I still sometimes have a teenage-level reaction to the pure aural aspects of music. I feel strong emotional impact from sounds and compositions. Somehow this does not get old in the same way.

I guess I feel that the highest calling of music is to express feelings that cannot be expressed in human language. Lyrics-focused music starts to get stale because it draws from the same source as novels, essays, journalism, screenplays, textbooks, a source which bombards us every day. Sound-focused music draws from what seems like another dimension.
posted by scose at 7:04 PM on November 28 [4 favorites]

I was in Amsterdam on business a few weeks ago and noticed Leftfield were playing at Paradiso; a gig I'd have given my eye teeth to be at when I was a youngster. On a whim I got hold of a ticket, middle age having brought solid finances at last, and wandered along. I guess I had a vague expectation of a young clubby crowd, but the queue was all thinning-hair, crows-feet, paunches and ill-fitting jeans. The band was much the same. As am I. It was still great though. It's an odd feeling, knowing the music of your teenage years so well but not having heard it for getting on for 20 years.

I've got to stand and fight
In this creation
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:33 PM on November 28 [5 favorites]

because she seems to equate getting older with defeat, passivity, and disconnection

No, I think she addresses this well and with nuance by by saying "Do you ever love a thing the way you do when you're fifteen?"

Because you just can't sustain fifteen. Fifteen is max-all-circuits all-hormones-no-responsibilities nervous system collapse at the Beetles (or Duran Duran or Jawbox or Decemberists or whoever your Fifteen Muse was). It's not healthy to sustain fifteen, even. You have so much wide-open bandwidth at fifteen. And it's okay to grow up and have broader interests and responsibilities and discretion and need more sleep. But there is a part of you that remembers, vestigially, what that felt like and what it meant and how it kept you alive through things that only seemed hard because fifteen and things that actually were hard because the world can be pretty shit especially when you're fifteen and powerless.

Most of the time I am glad I don't feel things the way I did at fifteen, every nerve raw and new. Every once in a while I want to feel that way again, but only for a few minutes.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:49 PM on November 28 [39 favorites]

I don't know if this belongs here but memories can be visual and of course scent as well. When I was very young (16 if you're curious) I met a girl at a Star Trek convention. I was working as security and she was, well, just there. She called me by saying, Hey asshole, you work here? I did and she was actually a lot nicer than her come on line. We eventually hung out in the con suite. We smoked a joint and kinda kissed. Then the con was over. At the time I was wearing a leather wrist band, as you do. And I sort of forgot about her. One day, in highschool, I happened to raise my leather wrist to my face.

And I smelled the perfume that she was wearing that day. Somehow it had soaked into the leather. And it all came back to me in a rush. I was smitten. I actually sat there in I think history class, sniffing this wrist band

The next con she was there again. Her name was Leigh Evans. And we were a thing for a few years. Now I draw the curtain over an nasty end. But I will nevre forget her scent.
posted by Splunge at 7:54 PM on November 28 [13 favorites]

I guess I feel that the highest calling of music is to express feelings that cannot be expressed in human language.

Music-making by humans in all likelihood predates language-making by quite a bit, and in my experience--as a creator, performer, teacher and human person--is more evocatively expressive in fundamental ways. Music also communicates powerfully but non-specifically, and so speaks to more intuitive, instinctual parts of our minds. (It's important to note that music is a non-symbolic, primary means of human expression and communication, and in that way is utterly unlike language, which is a symbolic and secondary means--i.e., musical sounds are only themselves, they are not sounds that represent specific or discrete meanings in the way that words are symbolic boxes for concepts or names with meaning beyond the word-sounds themselves.)

Given that our brains are likely under 100,000 years old in their current form, and evidence of human creative work exists from 70,000 years ago (the oldest musical instrument found thus far is a bone flute dated at 40,000 years old; analysis of the distance of the tone holes indicates that the instrument would have played an aeolian mode--natural minor--scale), music is certainly a basic, fundamental behavior by our organism. But also given their intrinsically phenomenal or ephemeral nature, music and spoken language could very well have been practiced for hundreds of thousands (or millions) of years prior to that, by other hominid species before we ever emerged.

Research in neuroscience lately indicates more and more that "spoken language is a type of music." I wish I had time and energy to share all of the ways I've found--in my life so far as both a human being and as a musician--how true that really is. But all I really wanted to say here is how very, very true the line in the comic (and thread title) is: music is absolutely a time machine, in that it simply erases most of what makes us feel time past in the first place. It shoots straight past memory and age and distance and change and culture and prejudice and everything, and speaks directly and deeply to our organism in profoundly intuitive ways.

I often tell students that music is the only means we really have to experience what it felt like to be alive in a particular time and place. I have so, so much music in my head now, hundreds of years' worth from dozens and dozens of stylistic and cultural practices; when your sample size with something like music gets large enough, wide in scope and deep in time, you really start to see the patterns, cycles, commonalities among human experience and it's amazing, beautiful, humbling, sad and wonderful. OF COURSE the creator of this comic experienced an unexpected existential catharsis: she went into a primary emotional experience from her adolescent/young adult life with all of these thinky-thoughts, when the thinky-parts aren't really the parts that music speaks to; so she was emotionally blind-sided.

I think that we suffer from our staggering wealth sometimes, with music: its utter ubiquity and ease of availability very effectively camouflages its fundamental role in being human, to our detriment. (If you find listening to music to be deeply moving and have never played music with other people, then you are missing a significant part of the musical experience. I can speak with a person for hours and not know much about them, their values or trustworthiness--but let me play music with them for a few minutes, and I'll know most of what I need to know. Hard to's been articulated well, though densely.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:09 PM on November 28 [9 favorites]

What an excellent little story, thanks for sharing it! I can feel the author, but as a similarly but slightly older old when I think about my music from the 80s there is very little grief - the fire is still there, that young person isn't gone and you needn't grieve if you don't let that person die!

When I see the 5 o'clock news
I don't wanna grow up
Comb their hair and shine their shoes
I don't wanna grow up
Stay around in my old hometown
I don't wanna put no money down
I don't wanna get me a big old loan
Work them fingers to the bone
I don't wanna float a broom
Fall in love and get married then boom
How the hell did it get here so soon
I don't wanna grow up

Don't grow up! Fuck that! Young and dumb? We are all young and dumb in a relative sense... Hold on to it, keep that teenage flame of doubt and questioning authority and striving but not giving a shit - it can still be part of you. Special for Emily Flake my fat doobie at the end of this work day will be accompanied by Remain in Light, side one. And I will stay up way too late and play Fallout 4... nobody can make me go to bed, you are not my boss!

make me young again

*poof*, done, you're young again. We are stardust, billion year old carbon, and we are also ephemeral, here and done in the blink of an eye. Be young! It's all in your head.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:10 PM on November 28 [7 favorites]

I wouldn't be young again, not for love nor money. That raw-nerve feeling, like everything's being carved out of you? Overwhelming even then.

...I look at him and remember how at his age, I would sneak out of the convent, and hitchhike into London, and then tube into Camden, where I would lose myself in punk crowds.

I want this as the jumping-off point of a "Four Yorkshirewomen" sketch.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:26 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]

Meatbomb's citation of Tom Waits has put me in mind of possibly the best follow-up, and one of the best songs I've ever heard about accepting youth, age, and all that:

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:11 PM on November 28 [5 favorites]

This was great. I was never a huge fan but I think I still have a couple of Jawbreaker 7”s somewhere.

Another musical marker of aging is being in the grocery store and hearing a song you once loved turned into Muzak.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:37 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]

Never got to do this. Lived in the middle of nowhere. No friends, no car, no scene. Strict religious parents, rural community, fundamentalist Christian high school.

She still captured the feeling of holding the memory, which is not the thing, but is close enough in your head that you can experience the slipping if it all away sometime in the past.

I never felt that freedom at the time. And I was more free in university but troubled so I couldn't feel it.

But the slipping away, the memory of believing in, well, anything, in believing one could believe. It's there.

I'm not 15, I'm not 25, I'm not 35.

But there's still the dust of empty afternoons and sunburned grass and overgrown railroad tracks and summer days unscheduled, scraping by on a part time job.

And I'm there and I'm not, and the tension between the two feelings tears me apart if I let it because I'm not sure I've actually breathed deeply since those days were over or if I'm just gasping for air in between long moments, holding my breath and waiting for them to come back or the current treadmill to run down.
posted by allium cepa at 9:51 PM on November 28 [16 favorites]

No, I think she addresses this well and with nuance by by saying "Do you ever love a thing the way you do when you're fifteen?"

[last lines] from Stand by Me

The Writer: [typing on computer] I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?
posted by Beholder at 9:57 PM on November 28 [4 favorites]

Grew up in Pinochet's Chile. There was a scene, but it was actually physically dangerous to participate in. I was too suburban middle class to get anywhere near it. Spent my formative years listening to cock rock.
posted by signal at 2:25 AM on November 29 [3 favorites]

"Teddy told me that in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means 'the pain from an old wound. '

FYI, it actually means "homesickness".
posted by kenko at 6:43 AM on November 29 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I totally get that grief.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:04 AM on November 29

I like her work and get the feeling (and Jawbreaker is cool) but I completely disagree that 15 year old me's loves and inspirations were a flash in the pan or whatever, and that's also the thing I really love about independent country radio, as opposed to rock radio where everything has to be new. You can make music (basically the same) until you are 80! Joe Ely just put out a great record at like 70 years old! 15 is not special, and if I had to pick some magical teenage year it would be like 13 (first year of teenagerdom) or 16 (when you can drive) or whatever instead.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:18 AM on November 29

I like her work and get the feeling (and Jawbreaker is cool) but I completely disagree that 15 year old me's loves and inspirations were a flash in the pan...

Except she's not saying that. She's suggesting that the experience of music is often different and sometimes more powerful for a 15-year-old than it is for a 40-year-old. To suggest that it is not, is to imply that there is nothing much at all that is different between being a teenager and being middle-aged. There should be something different. That difference is what makes being a teenager special. We should being celebrate that specialness rather than acting as if it's all the same at any age.
posted by scantee at 7:44 AM on November 29 [5 favorites]

Except she's not saying that. She's suggesting that the experience of music is often different and sometimes more powerful for a 15-year-old than it is for a 40-year-old.

And I'm saying there is not. There are differences, but the ability to appreciate music (and tie it to formulative experiences) ain't one of them.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:20 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]

I look at it this way - I will never need an album like I did when I was 15. Now if I really like something , I play it a lot and have a nice time. Then, discovering a record like Imperial Bedroom was like a new lease on life. It actually made it possible to continue for another day, to be able to listen to one of two or three essential slabs before school. It felt like growing a third lobe of your brain to find a whole new band you loved.
posted by thelonius at 8:24 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]

I think it's possible to keep that experience of music into middle age - the key is to listen to music as often as you did at 15 - on repeat, in headphones, morning and night. That's harder to do at 40. But someday, the music you're listening to today will take you back to how it feels to be in 2017.
posted by xo at 8:38 AM on November 29 [3 favorites]

Woah. Well into my 40s I’ve got deeper crushes on albums and bands and musicians and I need music now probably more than I did at 15.
It’s pretty much all new stuff too, I’m not rehashing my past.
And I’m interacting with music more deeply - mostly in that I can travel to see the bands I’m interested in.
I didn’t go to Riot Fest to see Jawbreaker. I saw two openers and split. Two contemporary bands that I listen on repeat in the car alone at night. Nostalgia isn’t my thing.
posted by littlewater at 8:40 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]

I think it's kind of depressing and sad to think that what you experienced in high school is somehow the pinnacle of your life, whether it's music or anything else. Like Al Bundy's (is this reference too old?) worship of his high school football days was played to be depressing, but if he somehow worshiped Nirvana instead, that'd be cool? No.

Of course, the fact that rock radio has mostly become oldies for gen-x (there's a station in every major city that plays the heck out of Nirvana, Sublime, Alice in Chains, and RHCP) I guess proves the author's point.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:04 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]

50 year old me saw Gary Numan last night which was awesome. I don't really go to nostalgia shows and prefer going and seeing new bands but made an exception for this and it was awesome. As was Gang of Four who I made an exception for a few years ago. Oh, and Slint, also totally worth it.
posted by misterpatrick at 9:11 AM on November 29

As a basic illustration, 15-year-old me loooooooved music deeply, but thought music by Brahms was boring.* While my adolescent musical taste was kind of crummy and mainstream, my point is that my listening--though intense and committed and deeply felt--was shallow (like much of adolescence). This truth doesn't minimize past-me's (or any young person's) experiences and thoughts, nor the real significance I experienced with the music I loved at that time (i.e., if it was meaningful and real and important to me, then it was meaningful and real and important), but it does mean that the difference between how those experiences felt versus what they objectively were--on the spectrum of musical experiences that human beings have created and offered to one another over the past few centuries--is pretty wide.

People most commonly make their strongest emotional bonds and connections during adolescence and early adulthood, and there are lots of physiological reasons for that. But also, I find that it's the last time in their lives when most people made time to really listen to music, and not just minutes or hours every day, but with deep attention and absorption and mindfulness. I have also found, over and over again, that the people who are not part of that 'most,' who continue to be actively engaged with music in some way, are easily able to renew and find different versions of those adolescent passions. It will never be like it was, and of course it never can be because holy shit adolescence, but it can be other kinds of that.

And wow, the other kinds of musical experiences that are out, 15-year-old me would have thought that Turangal?la-Symphonie was weird gibberish, electronica was boring, hip hop was kind of suspect, and M?tley Crüe was a decent band. While I'll still crank some 80s hair band rock every now and then, I don't still think the Crüe are saying anything meaningful. But I do think that (e.g.) Messiaen has something to offer, that Richie Hawtin made some of the most interesting late-minimalist music of the turn of the century while working in dance clubs, that hip hop is far from suspect (and even plays well with academic electronic music) and if I had not continued to listen to music actively and attentively throughout my life, I would not have understood nor really experienced that music or any of the other, amazingly wonderful music that fills our lives.

My experiences with music, since I was 15, have been so much better in so many ways than they were then. It won't be like that, but if--for you--music hasn't really been anything else meaningful since then, I urge you to start listening again, anywhere, and to anything, it doesn't even matter if you like it or not, just pay attention, notice what's happening in the sounds and lose yourself in their interplay for a few minutes or even seconds. Music will pull you back in, and you will be more well for it.

I guess maybe I'm just saying that the creator of this comic probably would find great meaning in resuming active musical listening. It just can't be to the bands she loved decades ago, you gotta find something new, something that speaks to now-you. Anyway. Music is awesome.

*[n.b.: if you've not yet experienced, say, either Brahms' first or fourth symphony, please be sure to do so, sometime before dying. If it sounds boring or doesn't make much sense or whatever, memail me and I will happily evangelize and share a few easy tips that should help to make your musical listening more meaningful, for this or any other music. I most recommend the recordings led by John Eliot Gardiner.]
posted by LooseFilter at 10:23 AM on November 29 [5 favorites]

In the words of the late Morrissey*, "yes you're older now, and you're a clever swine, but they were the only ones that ever stood by you"

* not to be confused with the current alt-right Morrissey
posted by acb at 1:19 PM on November 29

Nostalgia isn’t my thing.

I used to say that too. I don't know what happened, but it was surprising.
posted by bongo_x at 9:09 PM on November 29 [1 favorite]

Did this seriously get posted A) without any mention of Jawbreaker in the OPP (not even below the fold) and B) without a "jawbreaker" tag?

don't get me started on Jawbreaker
posted by intermod at 9:19 PM on November 29

The music with the strongest emotional associations for me is what I was listening to when I was 19-21 and... 24 to 25 maybe? So I think it has less to do with being 15 per se than going through Certain Times in ones life - times of a sort that happen to be happening around 15 for a lot of people.

At 28, I suspect I have at least a few more of these in me.
posted by atoxyl at 9:30 PM on November 29

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