Personal Essay

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is

By Scott Ross

That oft-quoted line from Noel Coward’s Private Lives came to me on a recent evening with that mental thunderclap you experience when a concept, treated heretofore as a wry joke, suddenly attains personal meaning. I was browsing at a second-hand book, music and movie store when the desk personnel put on some sort of ’70s retro collection, mostly innocuous pop, beginning with The New Seekers’ Top 40 hit-cum-Coca-Cola television jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Prefect Harmony).” That one was relatively painless — aside from the musical, artistic and intellectual anguish it occasioned — as it only took me back to pre-pubescence. But by the time I left, and had been subjected to America’s “A Horse with No Name,” Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” and Frankie Valli’s “December, 1964 (Oh, What a Night!)” among far too many others, I felt positively (or perhaps, negatively?) sick with involuntary nostalgia. Had I been carried back any further into my late adolescence, I’d have sprouted acne.

When one is bombarded by cheap potency of this sort, one begins to fathom why there are people who only wish to hear the songs of their high school years. It’s a high, of a kind, that also functions as the gateway to a form of melancholia so overpowering it’s a form of masochistic pleasure. You seldom feel with the intensity of adolescence, when nearly everything you experience, good and bad, seems to happen for the first time: All the anxiety, the trauma, the pain, the love, the sheer excitement of living on the cusp of young adulthood comes at you in regular waves, and the music you heard then leaves a mark. It too can be good, bad, indifferent or intolerable, but when encountered in a relentless bunch like that, even the worst pap attains some sort of narcotic power. For someone like me, who is rather more haunted by the past than is good for him, it’s like a frenzied dream-edit, image piled atop image atop feeling atop regret, that can literally invoke psychic nausea.

I suspect the foregoing goes some way toward explaining why some people turn off their ears after they reach a certain age. Nothing they hear later has that overwhelming pull on their emotions as the stuff they listened to between childhood and graduation. I’m reminded of a character in The Big Chill, that execrable simultaneous rip-off and diminution of The Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Fifth of July: Kevin Kline’s Haroldwho only allows the music of his young manhood to be played in his home. Oh, sure, it was Motown. But his mom and dad probably felt the same way about Perry Como.

I doubt it was healthy for any of them.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross


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