What if it’s not that I’m old, it’s just that I never paid attention to music? Would that be better?
As, ahem, much older friends and family members start hitting 60 and 65, I am stumped for gift ideas. Their walls showcase all the art they can handle; their wine cellars are stocked with vintages that suit their particular tastes; and their basements are full to boot. Suddenly, inspiration strikes: I will compile CDs for them. The target? One song from each year of their lives; all familiar enough to qualify as sing-along-able. A quick check shows that Wikipedia has lengthy lists of releases by year, going back forever, and that iTunes has a library only slightly less well endowed. What could possibly go wrong?
And so I begin, shuttling between Wiki and iTunes, happily assembling my playlist. Know it, buy it. What could be simpler? And, indeed, from the 1950s through the 1970s nothing could be simpler: there are so many memorable songs that I cannot reasonably limit my selection to one per year. The 1980s and 1990s are slightly slimmer pickings and I work a bit to come up with a song I really like from every year.
By the time I arrive at the noughts, though, I’m in serious trouble. It soon becomes clear I cannot have both songs I know and songs first released in the year-of. Ever flexible, I decide to relax my criterion and settle for a song—any song—from the year in question. Not so flexible that I’m willing to settle for music I don’t like, however, I wonder how to narrow down the perversely huge list of options available in this terra not very firma of la musica incognita. Then it hits me. Duh! I can go with artists and groups I recognize. Even if I haven’t kept pace with their current material, I can find something I like that way. Back to Wiki!
Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease. Wiki’s lists for the last decade are full not just of songs I’ve never heard, but groups I’ve never heard of: Atomic Kitten, Curl Up and Die, XTC. Yikes. The ones whose work I do know are past-their-prime artists releasing ‘best of’ or Christmas albums. Am I really this old? Yikes again.
With ‘flexible’ fast degenerating into ‘desperate’, I troll the lists again, looking for artists whose names sound even remotely familiar (but not too familiar, like Gaga or Bieber). I find one or two I know for reasons other than their music: Will Smith, for one, whose movie career has been more in my line than his rap. I find a few whose work I know and don’t usually care for much: Céline Dion, for one, who is at least still releasing new material. And I find a few who are creating distinctively new arrangements of old standards: Brian Wilson, for one, reimagining Gershwin. Bless his heart. Bless all their hearts.
Next stop, YouTube, where many of the candidate songs are available for online preview. In less than 30 seconds I know whether it’s back to Wiki (sigh) or on to iTunes (hurray). Thus do I painstakingly compile a selection for the most-recent decade, in the process listening to more new music than I have in that self-same decade in its entirety, probably.
Putting the finishing touches on my CDs, I find that my mission-accomplished satisfaction is marred slightly by my awareness of my disconnect from current culture, undoubtedly another symptom of my advancing years. I reflect gloomily that it can only be downhill from here. Trudge trudge.
And so it is that my subconscious—always on the lookout for the last word and never disposed to trudge—says one day, The Eagles, and I flash back to a 15-year-old business trip. The budget allowing just one car, our team traipses about the city in vehicular lockstep, hotel to office to restaurant. When we exhaust the range of local radio stations, a team member brings out a tribute CD to The Eagles, showcasing the then-current crop of country music stars.
Who are The Eagles? I enquire innocently. Oops. It turns out The Eagles are not some obscure group I could be forgiven for missing, but one of those blockbuster groups Everyone Knows. As I scan the playlist, I realize that I, too, know all these songs—I have, somehow, just missed the group.
But my Ghost of Musical Humiliations Past is not done with me: Herman’s Hermits, she intones. And now it is the mid-1980s, where we are trending nicely with popular culture, playing Trivial Pursuit around the kitchen table on a family visit. Balancing our teams by gender and age sees my father and me playing together, but this question is clearly entirely up to me: Which British band had the hit song, ‘Mrs Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter’? Not for the first time, I mentally curse the inventors of this game for their apparently arbitrary decisions on when to offer a multiple-choice format, and when to force straight recall. I had lived through this musical period, albeit as a just-minted teenager. Now 20 years past that point, I am stuck.
Was it the Beatles? Trying to help, my father suggests the only band he knows. Seeing me about to demur he adds, Don’t be afraid to go with an obvious answer. This generally sound Trivial Pursuit tactic does not help in this specific case. I know for sure it wasn’t our favourite Liverpudlians: not their sound at all. But who, then? I finally take the plunge: Herman’s Hermits? Bingo! Never having even heard of this band, my father is impressed by what he sees as arcane knowledge. My musically conversant then-husband, on the other hand, is incredulous: How could I not know that? It was obvious! Never one to remember bands’ names, I am simply relieved.
Ah, I get it now. It’s not my age, after all: I’ve never been any good at music. Dad, you were partly right, then and now: The right answer, when you find it, will certainly be obvious. It’s just that the first obvious answer might not be right.