DISCUSSED: Internal Struggles, Productivity, Mrs. Horton, Voodoo Curses, Silversun Pickups, Conspiratorial Smugness, Anvil-Headed Pop Idols, Demographics of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, Hairstyles of Lead Singers, Displays of Sincerity, Elder Statesmen, Long-Distance Road Travel, Neo-Dylanites, Joe Eszterhas, Jann Wenner, Cultural Currency


There’s a stage I go through during the gestation period of a new musical infatuation where I’m aware that it’s pointless to resist my need to hear song X at a particular moment and yet I’ll find myself resisting anyhow. “I am not going to listen to it again today,” I’ll say to myself. “Not this guy.” Spineless bargaining soon follows: “OK, I’m going to listen to the song again today and we both know it. And if that’s true—and it is—then I may as well listen to it right now. Just let me finish this paragraph first.” And then before any work is even attempted, I’ll fire up the song and begin to rock out. All of this takes less than two minutes.

Internal struggles like these, and I’ve had hundreds of them through the years, have nothing to do with improving my productivity, which in turn might increase my income, boost my self-esteem, and finally garner me the vague accolades my mother told my first-grade teacher I was destined to receive. (“Multiplication? Already?” she asked Mrs. Horton in 1976, when informed of my flash-card prowess. “He’s headed for great things.”) Sadly, they help only to combat burnout. Listen too often, too fast, to a song you’ve recently discovered and it will not go the distance for you. Very soon, maybe within a week or a month, you’ll play the track and notice its flaws: Singer’s voice too whiny. Guitarist not bringing it. Lyric no longer possible to condone (e.g., Interpol: “Her love’s a pony”). And so it will fail to deliver the emotional payoff you’ve come to expect. When this cancer sets in, you’ll never enjoy the song properly again—and by properly I mean with a geeky exuberance that can cause your mysterious, Haitian-born upstairs neighbor to bang repeatedly on his floorboards with what you hope is a mop or a broom and not something that has made you the target of a voodoo curse. Years later, when you hear song X on the radio or at a party, you’ll converse politely with it in your head, but, as with that ex-girlfriend you once assumed you’d marry but later had to leave around the time she got overly invested in swing dancing, you know there’s no going back.

Discarded musical infatuations are roadkill along the turnpike to obsession, and every obsessive’s toll road is littered with unsightly carcasses. Tears for Fears, INXS, Duran Duran, Journey, Falco, Information Society—these were just some of the acts I once regarded with an unhealthy measure of affection but whose songs often cause my face to burn when they confront me now. But minor embarrassments are a fair price to pay in order to satisfy an unquenchable desire: to add to that small cluster of songs and bands that will stay by my side always, no matter how many times I listen to them.[1]

If there’s any benefit to these periodic failures of judgment, it’s that they’ve taught me to keep my fat yap shut upon discovering something new. I’ll leave the touting of the next big thing to the bloggers (exception: the Silversun Pickups) and spare my friends the ultimately pointless babble about bands that I myself will dislike in a month or two. Instead, a worthier publicity campaign is waged. Because informing the people close to you of your long-term musical loves can be crucial to their understanding of who you are, everyone knows how I feel about Guided By Voices and Pavement and Built to Spill and so on—that is, if they were even listening. My friends can be pretty self-centered.

Still, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about discussing your obsessions, and I’ve known this for nearly three decades now. What I only recently determined, however, is that a lot of people go about it the wrong way. There are rules to being an obsessive consumer of music and many fanatics simply aren’t following them. And by not following these rules, these so-called fans are giving the very music they’re obsessed with a bad name; they are failing the songs they love. To the detriment of everyone, these guidelines aren’t posted anywhere, not even on the internet, and believe me, I’ve checked. But I’m not going to post them here. You either know how to serve your idols well, or you do not.

  1. Currently I’m hoping that this Valhalla will eventually open its doors for the Silversun Pickups, a Los Angeles band I’ve had on shuffle-repeat almost constantly since discovering them three weeks ago. A good sign: at this very moment, I’m fighting off an extreme urge to rise from where I sit typing on my laptop, walk over to the better computer, and blast their single “Lazy Eye.” If you’re unlucky enough never to have heard it, you’re missing out, in part because it echoes the early Smashing Pumpkins not a little bit but also because it features a singer who I’m positive would never consider publishing a book of poetry.

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John Sellers is the author of Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life. He’s written for GQ, Spin, and the New York Times, and half-assedly maintains a blog at johnsellers.net. This is his first essay for the Believer.

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