Some of us are more susceptible than others, but eventually it happens to us all. You know what I’m talking about: the inability to appreciate new music – or at least, to appreciate new music the way we once did. There’s a lot of disagreement about why exactly this happens, but virtually none about when. Call it a casualty of your 30s, the first sign of a great decline. Recently turned 40, I’ve seen it happen to me – and to a pretty significant extent – but refuse to consider myself defeated until the moment I stop fighting.
Aging is like hiking up a mountain. I speak as someone who has done a fair amount of both. What seems like a unique and fascinating tree down at ground level is just another tiny dot of green in nature’s stippling when seen from above. Only a few striking landmarks stand out from that vantage point. The broader perspectives seem more meaningful than the particular nuances. The further you climb, the more you tire, and the more important it becomes to conserve your breath and energy. The external boundaries of the environment constrain your choices.
As a middle-aged music listener, your ability to luxuriate in new sounds the way you did when you were a teenager is constrained by the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s curious that Wallace never mentions, over the course of three thousand words, the most obvious reasons why most people don’t keep up with the contemporary music scene beyond their young adulthood: they have careers, families, and household chores which consume most of their limited time and energy. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course; it just means that you’ll have to sacrifice things, and frankly, a lot of rock and pop music, obsessed as it is with the adolescent themes of horniness, chemically altered consciousness, and emotional melodrama, becomes less compelling for people who have moved on to more mature interests. Plus, when you’ve already loved and lost geniuses like Mark Sandman and Peter Steele, you simply don’t have it in you anymore to give your heart to some derivative band who, if they’re lucky, might write three decent songs. There’s no squirming out from underneath the weight of history.
Moreover, as Shakespeare said, there are more things in heaven and earth than can be contained in the typical baby-boomer experience. (Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing from memory.) That is, what Wallace is bemoaning as some perennial mystery of human nature has only been the norm for the three generations born after World War Two. The world of pop culture and mass media as we understand it only developed in tandem with the famously self-centered boomer generation, notorious for its inability to age gracefully. It’s not a surprise that the people who turned “never trust anybody over thirty” into a slogan would have bequeathed to their children a Peter Pan-like desire to stay in Neverland playing air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror forever. Our early thirties loom in our awareness like the River Styx, with Charon extending his bony claw before us, demanding payment in the form of our golden years, before ferrying us across to the land of responsibilities, opportunity costs, and music containing more than three chords. A living death, in other words. But why should we assume that this pattern will still be the same three generations from now?