So the first time I heard norteño music, I couldn’t stand it. I was a freshman in college and thought it all sounded like a drunk polka. I could tolerate Spanish rock, but anything with a tuba and an acordian had no place in the twenty-first century. All I could hear was the elements that made it foreign and unpalatable.
After awhile, I started hanging around homes and tolerating the music. I could distinguish between Los Tigres del Norte and Vicente Fernandez. It was subtle, but I started singing the songs on my own. Eventually, I set a few Spanish stations as presets on my radio. When fellow gringos would ask, I’d lie and say it was to learn a foreign language.
Eventually I moved past “appreciating the difference” and started hearing the similarities. It was no longer “foreign”music, but rather human music. I could listen to Counting Crows and Los Tigres del Norte and it didn’t feel strange.
It became a symbol for people.
It’s impossible for me to love who I don’t know and it’s really hard for me not to love those I really get to know.
Perhaps a little trite, but it’s become a conviction I have about life and the world and humanity.
Sometimes I get to a place where I label people. I find people who are just like me and build a friendship upon shared interests. Without meaning to, I try and friend myself, forgetting just how different my friends are or just how common our shared humanity is with those who seem “different.”
* * *
When I was in the eighth grade, my sister played August and Everything After on the tape deck. We mocked Adam Durtitz’s whiny voice, but after a few weeks, we tolerated it. Over time I yearned for the solitary bass line opening the entire album. I embraced the collective sound of “Omaha.” The album became a part of me; a soundtrack through the broken relationships of high school, the confusion of college and the need for memory in teaching.
In high school, Grant introduced me to ambient techno, Tori Amos and the Chemical Brothers (who sounded neither chemical nor fraternal). In college, Andrew told me that I needed to listen to Pedro the Lion. Dustin and Quinn hounded me about Thrice. Paul played Sufjan Stevens on repeat in car rides across town.
These weren’t simply musical recommendations. These were a recognition of something we shared. Each time someone said, “I think you would like . . . ” there was a sense that a friend knew me on a profound level. It wasn’t about matching styles. It was about matching themes and sounds and stories to my identity.
Now I have Pandora. Instead of calling up Quinn for musical recommendations, I allow an algorithm to suggest that if I like Death Cab for Cutie, I might enjoy The Postal Service (which is essentially Death Cab for Cutie with Super Mario music added to it). It’s not entirely asocial. Every time Pandora plays one of my friend’s songs, I see a profile picture, leading me to the scary reality that everyone in my “friend network” now knows that I gave a thumbs up to Jim Croce.
The social interaction remains muted, though. I know that Dan also likes Damien Rice, but I don’t get a chance to listen to the album with him. I know that four of my friends also listen to Sufjan Stevens, but I miss the collective experience of hearing it together.
Despite these limitations, my friends still try to share music on Facebook. They take blurry-rainbow pictures of concerts and write notes and quote song lyrics. Sometimes they embed video clips from YouTube. However, the process is always awkward, like eating a virtual pancake or sending a vapor high-five. If Facebook is a party with every person I’ve ever known, none of us know how to share our music.
Quinn the Business Bohemian doesn’t believe in letting algorithms decide his musical taste, so he actively engages people in conversations about music. “Do you ever listen to Mumford and Sons?”
“I’ve never heard of them,” I tell him.
“Really? John, you need to listen to this album,” he tells me.
“Why is it so vital?” I ask.
“I brought the album up to Prescott. Abbie and I sat their and listened to it. I was in tears. It’s powerful. It’s spiritual without being religious,” he tells me.
Quinn stops by and lends me the CD. The next day, I listen to the album from start to finish. I call up an acquaintance and tell him that they should listen to Mumford and Sons.
“Hey, my friend lent me
“John, everyone’s already heard their music,” he says.
“I didn’t know that,” I tell him.
“Yeah, I think they were nominated for a Grammy. Pretty mainstream.”
It has me thinking about the death of a common songbook. With iTunes and Pandora and a close friend network of likeminded people, I’m rarely experiencing those moments in an old Pontiac, forced to listened to whiny-voiced pop music that I eventually fall in love with. It has me thinking that maybe the “relevant” sort feature on Facebook pushes me away from diversity and into a world where I won’t experience the Norteno music effect.
* * *
A few days later, Quinn stops by. We share our thoughts on relationships, politics, music, novels and God.
“Quinn, you have to listen to Hayden. He’s not an easy listen. He doesn’t have that wispy voice of most indie singers, but that’s why I like his music. It’s unvarnished,” I tell him.
“I’m drawn to a unique voice,” he tells me. And he would be. Everyone says, “I listen to a little of everything,” but for Quinn the Business Bohemian, it’s true.
“He has a horn and a harmonica. I love the harmonica. I didn’t when I first heard it. I thought it sounded like an asthmatic donkey, but now I enjoy it.”
“You’ll have to lend me the cd.”
“Maybe you’ll get it in vinyl and we’ll listen to it at your place,” I tell him.
It has me thinking about my favorite musical memories. I think of slowly falling in love with an album that I first detested. I think of sitting around a living room in a circle singing songs that I once found trite and repetitive. I think of Javi the Hippie busting out the acoustic guitar and filling our home with spontaneously live music or Christy’s grandma at the grand piano playing hymns that I hardly recognize.
I think of Christy at her recital. She’s beautiful and so is her voice. She sounds like herself, but also like another person and though I don’t understand a single word of the Italian song, she’s speaking a language that’s much more powerful and I’m hooked – in love with a song that Pandora never would have recommended to me.
I want my life to be less Pandora, less filtered and less customized. I want it to be more acoustic. I want a live life.