I once read that, after age 33, most people essentially stop listening to new music. Apparently, that’s about the age when the proverbial cement hardens, and our attitudes of exploration are replaced with a desire for the comfortable and familiar. Musically speaking, we may as well be dead.
On one level, this makes sense. The near-constant stream of formative experiences that we typically go through during our teens and twenties – breaking away from our parents’ tastes, making friends, dating, figuring out what we think about the world, going through the ups and downs of middle and high school, maybe even falling in love and getting married – all but ensures that we’ll associate our most profound memories with the stuff we were listening to at the time. Everybody reading this has at least a handful of songs that immediately transport them to a specific moment in their youth. I can’t separate Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” from my Health and Wellness class during my sophomore year in high school, no matter how many hundreds of times I’ve heard it since.
By the time we hit our thirties, the songs (not to mention movies and TV shows and books) that we loved during those years have some seriously deep staying power. For a lot of us, they end up functioning like security blankets or our favorite comfort foods. They feel steady and welcoming and we know what to expect from them, so we return to them again and again, whether in times of pain or joy or even boredom.
I have my own comfort music too. I can’t imagine a day when, for example, The Beatles or Radiohead are no longer a part of my listening life. For years though, I’ve been intentional about seeking out great new music, searching for the next artist whose music will earn that status and become a permanent part of my personal musical landscape. I love that feeling of listening to a new album for the first time and realizing that it’s got a chance to be something special. It’s hard to conceive of a time when I won’t want to chase that feeling.
That said, I’ll turn 32 this year. If that study is to be believed, my time for discovering new music is running out, and my long march towards stagnation has begun. And, yes, it’s silly to be so fatalistic about all this. Of course I have the power to ignore this arbitrary number and go on digging for great new artists and albums and songs, in much the same way I have since I was about 15, scouring Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest songs of all time issue then racing home to illegally download the tracks on Napster.
But the truth is, I can understand how easy it would be for the wind of new music discovery to leave my sails, even in a world with nearly limitless access to artists of every sort. For one thing, all that choice can be a burden. When I look at my Amazon Unlimited library, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the (literally) thousands of recommended albums, and so I end up scrolling endlessly in search of something new, only to give up and resort to the safety of an old favorite. Anyone who’s spent what feels like an eternity looking for something to watch on Netflix only to cue up an old episode of The Office knows what I’m talking about. Committing to something new can feel like more work than it’s worth when the simple satisfaction of something familiar is at your fingertips.
For another thing, by the time we hit 33, many of us are in long-term relationships. We might have kids. Those kids have baseball practices and gymnastics lessons. We work, we sleep, we try to spend time with family and friends. Maybe we watch the occasional movie or sporting event. We go to the grocery occasionally and perhaps do some work around the house. With each passing year, we accrue more responsibilities, and more often than not, we have to make choices about which of our hobbies and interests we can stay fully devoted to. Inevitably, the branches on the tree get trimmed back. Instead of keeping up with the latest reviews, checking out the sites and magazines that formed our tastes in the first place, or disappearing down an algorithmic rabbit hole courtesy of our preferred streaming service, maybe we just fall back on those old favorites, time and again, until we see a Coachella poster and realize we don’t recognize any of the names beyond the headliners.
I see how it could happen is all I’m saying. An easy slowing of the curiosity that filled me during that decade-plus of unhinged musical discovery. A concession that I’ve got “my” music, and now’s the time for “their” music to have its day in the sun.
Butt then I think, screw that. I’m 31; I’m not deaf. NPR’s Bob Boilen is like 900 years old and that dude discovers more new music in a week than I do in six months. And yes, discovering new music is his job, but that’s just a technicality; I get the feeling that even if he didn’t host All Songs Considered, he’d just be hanging around a record store (remember those?) on every new release day, ready to dive in to a new crop of tunes.
Just because I’ll have to remain intentional in my approach to finding new music doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and just because I’m staring my mid-thirties in the face doesn’t mean my tastes will be frozen in time on the day I hit the big 33.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go ignore my children while I try to figure out what all the fuss is about Bad and Boujee.
Pray for me.