Music plays a big role in my life. With various aspect of my life, music is somehow involved. I’m an avid fan, always curious and exploring things that interest me or offer new perspectives. I play guitar for an ensemble at a folk music school. At that very same school, I also volunteer in their library where I have access to thousands of records. And, crossing over from the personal to professional realm, I volunteer for a community radio station, a bastion for new ideas and sounds.
Music also impacts my social life. I meet with friends and talk about music or even go see a concert. Over drinks after ensemble practice or a radio meeting, we talk about what we’ve been listening to, new and old. Music is a great force that connects people and allows us to open ourselves to others, discussing ideas, dreams, and philosophies. Things that drive us and make us happy.
For over three years, I have been part of an ongoing album discussion group. The core focus of the album group is a like a book club, but music albums are discussed instead of books. Using a book called 1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die, we have a general guide that offers a broad appeal for people of all types to participate. And we have that in the group. After discussing over 80 albums so far over the last three years, our group has grown with members representing different gender, generation, taste, and interest background. We come to the discussion with our thoughts, fueled by our experience.
One of the consistent themes that comes up, especially with an album with mixed reactions, involves the concept of enjoying the music for what it is. The idea being that the context with which the music is known, perhaps how pervasive or controversial it is, is irrelevant since the we’re ideally supposed to judge the music itself.
I sometimes find that topic difficult to accept. Whenever this topic comes up, in the group or elsewhere, it is usually associated with the concept of “separating the art from the artist.” And within that context, it is usually a discussion involving artists with toxic and controversial histories, personal or professional. However, within this group, this topic tends to come up as a generational issue. For the younger members of the group, millennials like me, sometimes music is tainted by its pervasiveness. Music that is heard in car commercials, in grocery stores, or featured as a set piece in a period piece film to establish a sense of time, the latter being a context that cements the song’s reputation.
Music is a very emotional experience and the music that is closest to us has the strongest emotional appeal. In most cases, this is music you grew up with. However, given my age, not all the beloved music of yesteryear has resulted in an emotional connection. That is not to say that there is no old music that I have an extreme fondness for. Most of the music I hold dear was released before I was born, sometimes by multiple decades. However, there are artists who are beloved that, to me, seem overplayed and have not appealed to me because I cannot separate the art from the commercials, stores, and movies that I associate the music with and that is regardless of how influential they are.
On Sunday, Ric Ocasek, the lead singer and guitarist for the Cars, passed away from heart disease at 75. My social media feed filled with friends talking about the role the Cars’ music played in their lives. For the older generation, it was the sound of their youth. For my contemporaries, the Cars paved the way for the power pop bands of their formative years. Multiple generations coming together because of an emotional connection to this band. One that I, however, do not share.
The Cars’ eponymous debut from 1978 was one of the albums discussed in our album group a while back. And I remember talking about the pervasiveness of their music from the perspective of a millennial. They are what I had referred to as “grocery store music;” stuff that sounded good that I could not say I disliked, but I also could not say I loved it either.
Since Ocasek’s death, I read the outpouring of admiration from friends and the tributes from musicians and celebrities that were impact by the singer’s passing. Even if I did not share the same emotional connection, I really enjoyed reading their thoughts. They were from a genuine place of love and respect for something that had a deeply personal impact. I know I have artists that represent that for me that others do not share, but I have respect for that.
What I did gain from reading these tributes was some perspective on how the Cars never really became a part of my life. For Generation X, the Cars signified a new, explosive change in music. New wave was an escape from the monotony of popular radio at the time, the era of disco and arena rock. A powerful cultural shift is certainly a great reason to develop a strong bond. I actually kinda envy those who were there at the beginning with the Cars’ music offering a glimpse in the strange new future of music. These types of seismic disruptions occur less frequently now (within my lifetime, grunge was probably the last one).
And for my generational contemporaries, I never really got into the bands that were directly influenced by the Cars. Bands like Weezer and Interpol. When my friends and classmates were discussing the brilliance of albums like Pinkerton, I was exploring a different direction and never cemented an appeal during my formative years. I have come to deeply love musical forms that I have discovered for myself later in life, so perhaps there is still hope for me when it comes to power pop.
Part of my morning routine getting ready for work involves me listening to Apple Music’s new wave radio station. Almost every morning, I hear the Cars. I never skip tracks and their songs are always pleasant to listen to. I can appreciate the band to some degree, but they are still the music I hear in commercials and at the store. Or, more realistically, the soundtrack to me brushing my teeth.
The Cars’ first single “Just What I Needed” was released at the end of May in 1978, a week before the release of their debut album. I would have liked to have been around at that time to experience the thrill that Generation X friends felt when they first heard Ocasek’s voice and rhythm coming from the stereo, or more appropriately from a car radio. Dismayed by a myopic cultural dystopia, I’m sure Ocasek delivered just what they needed.