Listening to familiar music for the first time

Listening to familiar music for the first time

Have you ever had the experience of listening to a familiar song and it's almost like it's the first time? I'm not talking about listening to a song you know well and finding some new subtlety to notice or appreciate. That's cool, too, but I'm talking about hearing a song that is both familiar and yet suddenly new in either the way it sounds or what it means.
80's guy with a boombox on his shoulder
This is how I looked listening to Buddy Holly in the 80’s (minus the coolness)

Have you ever had the experience of listening to a familiar song and it’s almost like it’s the first time?

I’m not talking about listening to a song you know well and finding some new subtlety to notice or appreciate. That’s cool, too, but I’m talking about hearing a song that is both familiar and yet suddenly new in either the way it sounds or what it means. I wouldn’t call this a common occurrence for me, but a couple factors have made it happen more to me than it does to most people. (Or maybe not. I don’t really know how unusual this is.)

Ignoring lyrics and shrinking collection

First, without intentionally ignoring a song’s details, I have mostly enjoyed music without giving much thought to it. If I like the sound and feel of a song, the lyrics are barely present to me, especially in pop music. I pay a little more attention when it comes to musicals since there’s a story to keep up with. I’ve always had a bad memory for lyrics, and even when I’ve absorbed enough to sing along, it’s more about the singing along than really understanding or interpreting what those lyrics mean. When lyrics are indecipherable, as they often have been in rock songs, that doesn’t matter because I don’t need them anyway. Even when I can make them out or hear a song enough to know what the words are, the meaning behind them often stays undeciphered,and I don’t really care, because that’s not what got me into the song. One of my all-time favorite songs, for example, is “Shambala” by Three Dog Night, and I don’t have a clue what it’s about. For all I know, it could be a song about killing puppies, but the guitar riff still makes me smile and do the white man’s overbite.

The second big factor is that I’ve gone stretches of several years making very little effort to keep up with current music or even listening to my existing collection. That hasn’t been a conscious decision, but I’m not one of those people who withers if they go a few days (or weeks or months) without hearing their favorite music.

Before the age of digital music, I had a limited music collection on vinyl and I played several of those records over and over as a kid. Eventually vinyl gave way to CD’s and I replayed a lot of those as a teen and young adult, but I never converted all my old library to new formats, so some old favorites fell away. iPods made it easier to carry big libraries around, but I didn’t ever rip my entire CD library, and since I again didn’t feel like re-buying everything, familiar favorites weren’t accessible even when I felt like playing music. I never stopped liking music, but the variety I listened to got narrower and narrower, even as selected from music I owned. That’s not a problem per se, but it’s an unintended consequence of my reluctance to re-buy music every time new formats emerged.

Not too long ago, I finally signed up for one of the major streaming music services. Ethically, I worry that this business model is screwing over the talent even more than the old ones. As a listener, though, it has been fantastic. I still don’t listen to music every day, but when I do, I’m sampling and enjoying a much wider variety of artists (and genres) than I ever did when it meant investing money just to check them out. I’m also listening to artists and albums that I never stopped liking, but went missing from my collection somewhere along the way. It was one of these that I just listened to that gave me my latest feeling of hearing familiar songs for the first time.

As a kid, I had a few dozen albums on vinyl. My early taste was heavily influenced by what some respected older people shared with me. I don’t mean “elderly”, but old enough that my early favorites included artists like Buddy Holly and The Beatles, even though it was the late 70’s/early 80’s when my taste started to form. I have remained behind the times musically all my life, so even when I discovered some act from the 90’s that I liked, it was likely to be well into the 2000’s when that band’s lead artist had died. (Sublime, I’m looking at you.) Back in those days of my limited vinyl collection, though, one of the earliest contemporary albums I remember owning and listening to over and over was Queen’s “News of the World”. I just listened to it again.

News of the World

Most people, especially anyone not that familiar with Queen’s catalog, would recognize the first two songs from this album: We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions. Both were staples of arena rock, played un-ironically in my era, and maybe a bit more ironically later by hipsters in charge of arena music, who enjoyed smirking at the juxtaposition of a notoriously gay band charging up a crowd with macho beats. Those two songs are so familiar that it’s impossible to hear them as though with virgin ears. There were 9 other songs on that album, though, none of which show up on Queen’s “Greatest Hits”. I couldn’t have named most of them, or come up with many of the hooks or lyrics without hearing them again, but each one landed on my ears with the familiarity of hundreds of listens, but also a newness that comes from hearing it with 30+ more years of living since I last listened.

Some of that newness was in the lyrics. I could sing along to most of these songs as a kid, but they were just memorized words. I understood most of them in a shallow way (“Get Down, Make Love” is not real subtle), but now I heard more depth to the passion, torment, alienation, or other feelings being expressed in these songs. Even more than the lyrics, though, what stood out to me in a way I never noticed or appreciated before was the sheer range and variety to the songs. Sure, Freddy Mercury’s vocals had the familiar impressive range, but I’m talking about the song types. There’s not a single song on it that comes close to sounding like any of the others. Even the two most famous tracks I talked about, with “Champions” starting on the last note of “Rock You”, are completely different in pace, feel, tone, and instrumentation. I don’t know enough about music theory to describe it more adeptly than that, but if it were food, this album would be like a menu offering pizza, Kung Pao chicken, fajitas, Big Macs, duck √† l’orange, and cotton candy.

That sounds like a shitty menu, and maybe that’s why the other 9 tracks are mostly forgotten from this album, but all the circumstances lined up just right for me to hear this playlist through nostaligia-filtered headphones, and it was a total treat. It made the familiar new again.

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