“There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.
It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”
-- “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior
My teenage years were filled with the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and Astral Weeks. I like to think my musical tastes have gotten broader as I got older … I used to get admiring laughs from students at Cal when I would demonstrate the difference between funk and disco by playing “The Big Payback” by James Brown … but I’m kidding myself. In my post-adolescent life (i.e., adulthood), my musical favorites have been Bruce Springsteen, punk, Prince, Sleater-Kinney, and Pink. Springsteen was famously called rock and roll future, but he was always far more a compilation of what came before. Punk felt revolutionary, but the music was a return to roots. Prince could do anything, but ultimately, he was Sly and the Family Stone with Hendrix sitting in on guitar. Sleater-Kinney were riot grrrls, to be sure, but by the time they met their hiatus with The Woods, it was clear they were indebted as much to Led Zeppelin as they were to Bikini Kill. Pink has offered wonderful covers of Led Zep and Queen and Janis Joplin … when I saw her at the Fillmore, she fit right in. I haven’t strayed too far from my teenage roots.
As I type this, I’m listening to “Live with Me” from Let It Bleed by the Stones. It’s part of my never-ending project/playlist, “FM”, with close to 3,000 tracks that were played on “underground” radio in the late-60s. (Coming up on the playlist: Jefferson Airplane, Beatles, Quicksilver Messenger Service.) This is my go-to playlist when I want to listen to comfort music. (There is nothing “comforting” about songs like “Inside Looking Out” by the Animals, but the ambiance they suggest is comforting.) It’s perilously close to nostalgia, which I hate in myself.
So I suppose it makes me feel better to read Jennifer Senior’s article and find that it’s not nostalgia, it’s neuroscience.
I want music to matter to me. Music in general mattered when I was a teenager, by which I mean I had favorites (Beatles, Velvet Underground, Yardbirds, Astral Weeks) but the integration of music and life was truly important (which is why my comfort playlist isn’t focused on a particular artist, but on the FM radio stations that got me through those years). I was 22 years old when we first connected with Bruce Springsteen, and that’s been a constant ever since. And there have always been others who mattered more than most: Dylan, Lou Reed, the Clash, Prince, Hüsker Dü, Sleater-Kinney. When S-K went on their “hiatus”, I suspected that I had experienced my last love affair with a musical artist. I was too old to crank it up all over again. Since then, I’ve seen Wild Flag three times and the Corin Tucker Band twice, but that’s not moving forward. I’ve seen Pink four times, with a fifth coming this fall … she’s easily the artist about whom I obsess the most these days, outside of Bruce. But I always feel like an observer in Pink’s universe. It’s not like with Sleater-Kinney, where somehow even a middle-aged guy like me felt a part of a community.
I spend a lot of time ranting about the evils of nostalgia, and get cranky at people who quit enjoying new music after they reach a certain age. Perhaps I should look in the mirror.