I don’t know why I’m writing this.
I mean, I kind of do. This should be my year-end feature, where I put the albums I liked in an arbitrary list so you can understand how I experienced the past twelve months. But how could I write that when I have no fucking idea what happened the past twelve months? So instead I’m writing this: an attempt to make sense of the most bizarre year– of music, of life, of culture– that I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think I’m going to succeed. What’s to follow is a self-indulgent rant on phenomenal music I didn’t really get, my bewilderment over the critical reception to Bon Iver, and a Channing-esque query as to what music even means to me anymore. But I have to do this. Even if I don’t know why.
I don’t think I’m alone. The entire year, I got the sense that nobody really knew what was happening in 2011 but just sort of ran with it. Reading the various year end write-ups across the internet, I’m comforted to see at least a couple other publications acknowledge of how weird this year was. SPIN, for example, is all about it. They seem excited about where this directionless quagmire is going to take us in the future. I’m fucking terrified of it.
It’s an old argument, but even as an internet writer, I have to admit the internet is over-saturating culture. To paraphrase Milan Kundera, we no longer live in a time where important cultural events are the framework for how we order our everyday lives. Now, our everyday lives go largely unchanged as culture happens around us. Remember the Odd Future shitstorm? That was a big fucking deal. I remember being genuinely excited about them. And then they were everywhere; everyone started talking about them and then everyone’s opinion on Odd Future had to be qualified and explained and the dialogue totally collapsed on itself. Now, they don’t fucking matter anymore. The internet killed Odd Future as quickly as it gave it life. The same thing is happening to Lana Del Rey, and she hasn’t even released her album yet. We’ve entered a time where the internet commenter’s taste for pastiche, irony, and base intelligence has become the norm, which makes it nearly impossible to have an original thought about anything.
Musically, this culminated in a bunch of things that were pretty good and nothing life-changing. I felt as if I knew the conceit of nearly every supposedly “important” album that came out in 2011 before I even listened to it. Not that I mind post-modern reappropriations on principle, but it’s getting a little transparent. So many records from 2011 boiled down to a readily identified, extratextual “point,” and once that “point” was established, there was an obligation to form an opinion on that point, and then we moved on to something else because that’s how smart people listen to music. Take James Blake for example. I struggled with James Blake all year because he should have been someone I loved. Here was a man blending the future with the past in an interesting, oftentimes beautiful way. And yet I could never muster much more than a “yeah, that’s pretty cool” towards him because once I’d identified his “thing”—soul and dubstep—it felt like there was little else to discover. It’s smart music, and it deserves its accolades, but I still don’t feel much towards it, because I “figured it out,” as if the album was a puzzle whose solution was fairly obvious. It did everything I knew I loved and yet I didn’t love it.
James Blake wasn’t the only album I pretty much liked—hell, I put it #5 on my list—that I felt conflicted about. The Fleet Foxes, Girls, and Panda Bear (yes, even the infallible Panda Bear) albums all fell into this category where I basically understood what was happening, appreciated how it sounded, yet felt mildly distant towards it. And, fittingly enough, the website I write for picked my most egregious example of this for its album of the year. In 2008, we thought that there were five albums better than For Emma, Forever Ago, but we couldn’t agree on one being better than Bon Iver’s boringly pretty, twice-eponymous second record? Shenanigans. And yet the choice is in character with the splayed out chaos of the year; I’ll posit that we picked Bon Iver, Bon Iver not because enough people thought it was the best thing all year, but because there was so little consensus among staffers that the thing we agreed on most strongly is the inoffensive prettiness of Justin Vernon. I don’t blame us for this choice, really. It’s just that there were simply no defining commonalities that held us together. Comparatively, 2010 had 10 albums that could’ve been agreeable choices for album of the year. The zeitgeist-less 2011 had none.
I spent too much of last year looking for one. For the longest while, I didn’t know why I felt lost, but with the year’s unsatisfying end, I’ve come to think that it’s because I tried too hard to be “smart” with the music I heard. I wanted to find the thing that would ignite my soul like The Monitor and Public Strain did last year. As a result, I forgot how to hear something and genuinely, intuitively love it. Maybe I even lost touch with myself; I spent so much time looking for records that conformed to what I thought I liked and ended up with few I loved. Today, the ones I love are the records I can throw on and not think about, shit like Vacation and Leave Home and Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. These are records that I grew familiar with over time (including WU LYF, because once the initial shock wore off, I had to learn to love it again). They came to me instead of vice versa, which made all the difference.
So I guess the lesson to walk into 2012 with is “listen,” which is the most obvious thing ever, but I’ve learned it’s pretty easy to forget. There’s such an appeal to hearing something, coming up with a snap judgment, and moving to the next thing, all the while amassing an impressive library of music and opinions. Shit, being an amateur critic practically encourages the practice. And yet, 2011 wasn’t really satisfying, despite having billions of things to listen to, and I don’t think this is the music’s fault. It’s mine. I took dozens of lovers and loved none of them. I need to step back, tune out all the bullshit, shy away from the internet’s control to the best of my ability, and remember how to listen to music, especially if I want to keep writing about it. And, trite as the optimism is, I’m looking forward to it.