Music and Cars

I was listening to music in my car on the way to work this morning, and realized that of all the things that are important to me about having a car, having a decent sound system ranks pretty high on the list. Even though my drive to work every morning is quite short, it means a lot to me to be able to fill that time with music I want to hear.

Time I spend in the car is the only time out of the entire day that I can listen to whatever I want. I have no constraints other than time. I need not worry about disturbing anyone else while I’m in my own little isolation chamber. I don’t have to choose music based on what others might want to hear. I don’t have to listen to an entire song if I don’t want to; I can jump freely between artists, genres, and styles at will as my own whim dictates.

Just as people are often judged by the cars they drive, have you ever noticed that people are often judged by the music they listen to? When I was in high school, the music you liked was your entrĂ©e into entire social cliques; the cool kids listened to one group of artists, while listening to other styles might brand you a ‘nerd’ or simply uncool and socially unclean. I was a choir member! Can you imagine the sort of ostracism that came from enjoying the sort of music, both sacred and secular, that choirs sang? Of course, I didn’t care much. Most of my interests (audio, photography, electronics, computers) placed me decisively in nerd territory, and there I stayed for my entire high school career. Some people understood, some jeered, and I remained myself.

Today, I still listen to a lot of music that most people would find odd. As an audio and recording engineer, my career has brought me into close contact with a wide variety of musical styles, most of which I have embraced and come to appreciate. Still, my tastes gravitate strongly toward a style that is ever-increasingly unacceptable among most of the people who surround me. I am not ashamed of the music I like. Let me say that again; I am NOT ashamed of the music I like, but I still avoid listening to it in the presence of others because more likely than not, they’ll be offended or put off by it. It’s not always cool.

To illustrate this, I’ve just pulled out my iPhone and hit “shuffle” on the iPod app. I’m going to list the first five songs that come up, completely at random, and tell you why they’re there.

1. Terry Jacks – Seasons in the Sun. I have loved this song since it came out in the 1970s, while I was still in elementary school. At least one of my middle school choirs sang it, since it was so popular. Later, I came to appreciate the very cool guitar tone in the intro.

2. Eddy Grant – Electric Avenue. I probably wouldn’t catch much flak for this one. It’s got an infectious rhythm, and the synthesizer bits are tasty, too.

3. Dan Fogelberg – Part of the Plan. This song, like most of Fogelberg’s repertoire, has great lyrics and a powerful melody. I like acoustic guitars and I like interesting chord progressions; this song has plenty of both.

4. Billy Joel – Leningrad. I’m not the biggest Billy Joel fan, but I like many of his songs. This one’s got a story that grabbed me from the beginning, even though the music and the medody are pretty predictable. The general theme, the assertion that we’re all human, all on the same side regardless of political boundaries, resonates strongly with me.

5. Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally. Okay, it’s depressing — suicidal, even! I can’t get away from the cleverness of the lyrics, though, or the understated beauty of the arrangement. It also expresses a lot of truths. “It seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world that can’t be mended, left unattended. What do we do? What do we do?”

It is perhaps fortunate that one artist that’s well represented in my music library did not pop up, but I’ll not spare myself that embarrassment either. I like Barry Manilow’s music, particularly the earlier songs. I hate “I Write The Songs,” and I tire of the Manilow Formula (Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, MODULATION, Chorus) but his songs were always finely orchestrated and beautifully recorded (by engineer Mike DeLugg, who is now the audio engineer for the David Letterman show). I heard an unreleased, alternate mix of “Weekend in New England” this morning that was sent to me by a mastering engineer. That’s the sort of music I’d listen to furtively, at low volume, with earbuds if there were people around, but this morning I turned up the volume and let the soundfield surround me. Every instrument had its place, spatially, spectrally, and musically, and my ears rejoiced. It may sound arrogant when I say it, but I believe that only a mixer can truly appreciate a great mix in all its nuances and details, and I got a real charge out of this one.

I wish that music were not a status symbol. I wish that people could open their minds and ears and realize that all music has something to say to us, if we’ll only listen.

I once had a painful conversation with a good friend who is many years my senior. It was his opinion that absolutely none of the popular music made from the 1970s onward was any damned good at all — that it had no musical value, no artistry, no beauty. I tried giving a few examples and arguing my side, but was politely told that it was no use — that we were, as he put it, “miles apart on this.”

I hope I never get to that point. Granted, there’s some truly awful music being made today. Now that anyone with two thousand dollars to throw around can have a pretty serious recording setup, the bar has been lowered considerably. Music is still being made, though, and much of it has something to say, even to a geezer like me. I dislike “rap” in general, but I can recognize the incredible talent that a good freestyler must have. I don’t care for the twangier, lowbrow side of country music, but excellent musicianship and understandable lyrics do argue strongly in favor of it as an art. Play something for me from any genre, any style, and any artist and I will probably find something in it that I can appreciate or even develop a taste for.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream. Mine is that someday, I’ll be able to put my iPod on shuffle and plug it into a set of speakers, right out in front of God and everybody, and not have anyone give me sidelong glances because Kenny Rogers’ “You Decorated My Life” or John Gorka’s “Flying Red Horse” is in there.

Until then, my car is my concert hall, my sanctuary, my stereo on wheels, and my secret place.


  1. I broadly agree – although I think you could’ve added the effect of accountancy. When the music you’ve mentioned there was being made, recording contracts were awarded on the basis of musical quality: An artist whose music would annoy/offend/not be liked by eighty percent of listeners could still get a contract from somewhere, if what they were saying and doing had some sort of merit.

    Nowadays – certainly in the “modern pop” scene, anything that isn’t going to be hugely commercial is going to struggle. OK, the recordings will be made…probably in someone’s bedroom or garage…but without the advertising might of one of the big companies, isn’t going to get much airplay.

    It’s just occurred to me that what I’ve written is the exact opposite of what YouTube, Facebook etc is supposed to achieve – it’s supposed to be easier than ever for a new band to reach an audience. Perhaps there’s just so much choice that most punters don’t know where to start.

    Meanwhile the Simon Cowell music factories give massive publicity to inoffensive, dull, carbon copy artists whose only real strength lays in covering other people’s work (or later in the process, recording stuff that people with real talent have written for them). For the most part being able to play an instrument, or indeed having any musical skill at all, seems to be optional.

    Would an emerging punk or ska scene have made any progress today? Probably not.

  2. 1) The “best music” is inevitably the music which helped form YOU as a person… often, this is music from your teens (when you actually HAD the time to listen to lots of music)

    2) “Music from xx is much better than anything modern” is affected by the fact that, over time, the crap music is forgotten, and the good stuff remains. For the last 10 years-sh, there’s still too much crap that we can remember, for the good stuff to shine through yet. There’s a lot of crap around now, and there was equally as much crap being produced in the 60s and 70s… we’ve just forgotten about all that 60s and 70′ crap!

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