On Cringeworthy Listening Histories
I often succumb to the obstructive instinct of curation. It’s one of my fatal flaws, and it’s only gotten worse with social media and the rise of platforms like Instagram, where perfection has been commodified in ways narrowing and detrimental, but I can’t blame the apps entirely. Some part of me has always resisted being fully seen. In many ways, getting to know me means getting to know only the bits I choose to share.
A part of that instinct—to hide what isn’t pretty and focus on what is—includes music, namely my listening history. Given the place music holds in my life, as well as the writing I do about it and the breadth of my listening and the way it’s all blossomed into a kind of identity, it’s been hard at times to cop to past tastes. I rarely talk about what I listened to in high school because I find it embarrassing. But why?
To my way of thinking, music functions as a language. The wider you listen, the more you come to grasp the “grammar,” priming your ears for elements like dissonance or syncopation or contrapuntal music. Listening more narrowly, that is shifting your focus only to what’s fun or easy, makes it harder to engage with something complex. You lack the structure. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start off with easier sounds and develop from there—building blocks being the fundamental part to any learning process.
So maybe this is all to say that we follow different paths to our current listening tastes; mine started out rather rudimentary but has since grown into an eclecticism I’m quite proud of. Still, perhaps it’s because of that pride that I feel embarrassed about my teenage years when I fell hard for the seemingly layered and complicated sounds of one Mr. Dave Matthews and his Band.
It started with 1996’s Crash and grew from there, moving backwards through their earlier music, 1993’s Remember Two Things and 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, and forward with 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets and 2001’s Everyday.
My love for DMB far exceeded the music itself. DMB posters lined my bedroom; I was a (card carrying!) member of the DMB fan club; I bought their limited edition Ben & Jerry’s flavor ‘One Sweet Whirled’; and I dragged my high school boyfriend Terry to what was then known as Sunrise Amphitheater every summer when they inevitably toured. Or, I should say, Terry allowed me to drag him since his family owned box seats.
Recently, the podcast Bandsplain attempted to contextualize and clarify what it was about DMB that attracted such a following. As critic Grayson Haver Currin put it, they offer “virtuosity and easy accessibility.” They brought together elements from other genres—jazz, bluegrass—and built a kind of jam band-ish alt-rock. Though they lacked the skill to be a true jam band, they knew enough to “crack open” their studio cuts and create a memorable live version.
I remember thinking how sophisticated it all sounded as a 16-year-old. Their live shows were a marvel, and I imagine still are, which is why they continue selling out their summer dates and why their major output since their early catalogue has largely been live recordings.
But in re-listening to their music recently, I couldn’t hear the textual marvel I thought the songs displayed when I was younger. I did, however, hear fiddle lines that would lead me to bluegrass, and drumming that would lead me to jazz and math rock, and West African-influenced phrasing that would lead me to a deep-seeded love of Malian guitar, and other threads that would develop into the sounds that comprise my tastes today.
I’m not saying DMB laid the exact foundation, but perhaps it trained my ear to engage with a variety of sounds that weren’t readily available for easy consumption at the time. Unless you were a kid in the know about music, which I very much was not at that age, DMB was a door into a world of complexity and wonder.
In fact, Currin pointed out on Bandsplain that while DMB were working on the follow-up to Everyday (what would become the darker album later released as The Lillywhite Sessions), they backed away from what was becoming a melancholy sound for them, scrapped their songs, and instead released the far happier Busted Stuff in 2002. It was around that point, which coincided with my graduating high school and venturing off into new tastes, where I fell away from the band.
Busted Stuff displayed a glossy sheen that didn’t interest me. Funnily enough, the anodyne quality I heard back then has largely defined what I hear now. Re-listening to DMB brings back memories rather than moments of musical connection that have stood the test of time. I can throw on any number of older songs or albums I haven’t heard in years and enjoy the music. But not so with DMB.
As for being embarrassed about my former devotion to the band, that’s something I’ll have to come to terms with as I work on shedding the obfuscating instinct to hide my real self in favor of a glossier version. I suppose the true shame would be if my listening ever stopped, if my curiosity faded. I’ll own my DMB past any day if it means I can point to it and show you how much I’ve grown, how it’s just one sound among many with still more to come.