Self on the Shelf: Music and Relationships

What is music? This is one of those classic questions that seems easy on the face of it, but then becomes remarkably complicated when you think about it for a minute or two. I’ll skip that mess, and ask a different question: what is the meaning of a music collection? I’ve got a relatively large music collection by some people’s standards, but an embarrassingly small collection next to some people I know. What’s that collection say about me? I estimate that I’ve got around 800 CDs, and there are about 7,000 songs on my iPod. I don’t own any vinyl, and only a handful of cassette tapes, most of which  are mixes I made from CDs to play in my first car. In terms of genre, my music collection is heavily 80s and 90s alternative, Americana, and a bit of punk. I’m a product of my time and social location, and I’d argue my music collection is good evidence of that. (I swear the GSS used to list a finding about people saying their favorite music was what they listened to in high school, but I can’t find it anywhere). A sociological discussion of music would probably consider the relationships between race, class, and gender, among other variables, and one’s tastes. It would be an exploration of social capital, and I know it’s been done. But, what about the meaning of a music collection?

When I look at my music collection my experience of it is significantly emotional, and it says a lot about who I am as part of a number of relationships with others. Certain discs evoke memories of fun concerts (I’ve written a bit about that here), or other very specific memories like hearing them on a certain stretch of highway, or they can put me back in touch with the ‘moods and motivations’ of times and places when I first heard the music. For example, Wilco’s ‘Summerteeth,’ every time I listen to it, puts me in my dorm room at UW-Whitewater on a beautiful spring day. It was released March 9th, 1999, my senior year of college. That was a fun and exciting time when I was trying to figure out where to go to grad school, and just what my relationship with my then girlfriend and now wife was going to be. The album, specifically the title track, recalls those feelings even 14 years later. Other records recall darker emotional times, for example Weezer’s ‘Blue Album.’ This is certainly in my personal top 10 list, but it was released on May 10th 1994, just 5 days before my dad unexpectedly passed away. I love the music, but listening to the album is always connected that experience of loss.


These examples bring up a key point to my understanding of the meaning of a music collection. There are albums that remind me of specific people and my relationships with them. Others that make me think of my Dad are the Chet Atkins CDs that were his, or the Johnny Cash records that recall the oldies I remember him liking so much. Other records are a part of my relationship with Joy, like the Old 97’s ‘Fightsongs’ which was the first time I was able to convince her this was a band to know and love (released April 27th, 1999), or R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic For The People’ because we danced to ‘Nightswimming’ at our wedding. The first CD in my collection (I’m pretty certain) was U2’s ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’ which was lent to me by my older brother when he handed me down my first CD player after buying himself a new one. Yes, I think it was lent in about 1992, but I’ve still got it on my rack over 20 years later (do you want it back, Dave?).

So much of my musical tastes come from this relationship with my older brother, whose good sized CD collection I transferred onto a bunch of those cassettes I mentioned above, that music continues to be a way we can bond. I always knew that if music came from Dave there was a very good chance I’d like it. Later, when I introduced him to something he ended up liking, it mattered because it meant I was reciprocating in terms of something we both care about – music and bands. In fact, just this past Christmas (2012) he sort of put down the Drive-by Truckers, one of my favorite groups, and I took it as a little bit of an offense. What do you mean you don’t like the Drive-by Truckers!? I remember being in Cleveland back in 2003, driving to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the day after the east coast blackout) and playing him ‘Marry Me’ from DBT’s album ‘Decoration Day.’ It’s a great track so he had to love it. He didn’t. In fact, that’s the song he bashed this past Christmas! How! So, Dave, I’m over it, but come on, give the Truckers another chance. Maybe they’ll end up being something you like as much as I like that Minor Threat disc on the rack, a band I’d never have heard of if you hadn’t introduced me.

I’m pretty sure that my experiences aren’t that unique. Many people like to share the music they love with their friends and family. It can be a tough interaction when a friend introduces you to a group they are moved by, but your reaction is less than moved. I always feel compelled to say something like, “no offense, but it’s not for me.” I’m not going to ‘unfriend’ somebody for not liking ‘my music,’ but music can be important to us for the role it plays in defining us and our relationships, and shared musical tastes can make a relationship stronger. Those personal, emotional connections are a significant part of the meaning of a music collection.


One comment

  1. Do you listen to All Songs Considered and/or follow their blog? They always have good discussions about things like this–the many meanings of music and the ways it interacts with our lives at different times.

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