rewarding repeated listens


More than a few years ago now, I worked at a sub shop in Central Wisconsin, often with my good friend, later groomsman and current doctoral student Andy. Our tastes in music often overlap and intersect, so after the 6 pm radio embargo, he’d fish a stack of CDs out of his crusty, world-weary faux leather bag and we’d torture that poor shop stereo with all sorts of music. (It often returned the favor by destroying our CDs.)

One night, probably around 2004, he put a sampler in from some music magazine whose name escapes me which included songs from a lo-fi electronic project known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. We went about the business of making sandwiches and dealing with the public, when we both stopped, looked at each other and wondered aloud, what is this crap?

Perhaps it was the speaker quality (questionable at best) or the fact that the coolers in the back made so much noise (also a legitimate mitigating factor making the acoustical quality of the restaurant akin to sitting next to the propellers on a puddle-jumper) that we couldn’t really make out what was going on, but, whatever it was, it was horrible. We laughed at how bad it was, the lo-fi quality–typically endearing, mind you–coupled with actual, cheap synthesizers which could well have actually been Casiotones and this spoken-word overlaid atop the beeps and boops was completely unlistenable, but like a car crash, we couldn’t help ourselves. It became the brunt of many jokes for months down the line.

Then, the strangest thing happened. I found some free tracks of CFTPA online, and listened, at first, for the humor of it. Then again, out of morbid curiosity. Then again, and again. And I found myself liking it. Even to this day, if Casiotone pops on my media player, I can’t help but listen.

According to the astute and erudite folks who did the Lord’s coruscating work in compiling the work found in The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, this is a phenomenon known as ‘rewarding repeated listens’: when a, for the sake of the topic covered, record makes little sense or doesn’t quite work for the listener-snob at first, but after further review turns out to be a worthwhile investment.

This concept need not be restricted to music, though: who hasn’t gotten a record, movie, book or television program, or even met someone, the first go-around, only to revisit x to find that x makes more sense after a few interactions? I tried getting into Bob Dylan when I was much younger, but it didn’t make sense until even just four years ago or so. I hated Gilmore Girls until I saw that Grant-Lee Phillips showed up every now and then and then more clearly saw the merit of the show (until I realized that there was no personality dimensions to the characters, all of them spoke with the same voice.) The biblical prophets were the province of wackos and eschatological/fundamentalist dispensationalists until I revisited them during my graduate studies and found the human dimension of their indictments, the conflict of the divine message with the frailty of human expression. Now, I find them more valuable than everything except the Christ-event.

Often times, these nouns that reward repeated listens end up meaning more to us, because we needed to invest ourselves into them. How many friends or significant others start out bewildered or even irritated by the other? Now, not everything will necessarily reward repeated listens (see: the last Band of Horses record, ‘Infinite Arms’, a decidedly underwhelming effort after two stellar productions, which naturally garnered praise from The New York Times and Pitchfork, two enormous red flags which should have kept me away in the first place) and, as in the cited case of Gilmore Girls, the luster wears off after a while. Some nouns need not be visited more than once, and some not at all. (cf. in no particular order, Wrigley Field, Nickelback, anything by Hal Lindsey, suicide.) The beauty of rewarding repeated listens is the same as digging at the Crater of Diamonds: out of all that dirt and crap, something interesting or valuable is bound to be unearthed. You know, like a diamond. Or the Steak Gorgonzola Alfredo at Olive Garden. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In the instance, though, when you are taken by pleasant surprise the second, third or twentieth time revisiting a noun, recognize that there is a latent rock snob inside you. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, to be a good steward of one’s intellectual capital by judicious exploration and revisitation of things we weren’t entirely fond of before. It means the instinct to be curious has not died, as is so common as we make our inexorable march toward the mediocre, while the ability to be selective demonstrates a commitment to integrity, if not one to standards of personal taste.

Humility without snobbery means settling for anything, while snobbery without humility means sacrificing our personal integrity at the altar of buzz. And, really, what is the difference between the two? They are equally pathetic states of affairs where the person remains tragically undefined in favor of whatever someone else is thinking.

Somewhere, for each of us, there is a Casiotone, an incredible person, a film, a dish, a play, a noun, that will move us to tears, smiles, laughter, make us think, rock one’s world, force us to wonder what we ever did without x.

And we just haven’t found x yet.

Or have given it a second spin.

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