This Is 40: A Very Special Geheimnisvolle Musik
I’m sure none of us ever pass judgment on things we haven’t seen, read, or heard in their entirety. But I’m going to do so, anyway. Prior to such well-executed fare as Skyfall and Argo, I’ve endured two minutes or so of the trailer for the new Judd Apatow film This is 40. Every time I see the trailer, it always comes across as some mismashed hash of yawn-worthy sophomoric salaciousness and treacly sentimentality, involving a standard issue man-child and his more pragmatic (or, I suppose to a fair number of Apatow fans, fun-killing) wife, fretting over making it to another decade.
I don’t mind similar tendencies so much with Kevin Smith, however. Maybe it’s because there’s at least Rosencrantz… er, Jay and Silent Bob to comment profanely and, well, (mostly) silently on the other characters.
At a deeper level, if I’m honest with myself about this specific movie, maybe it’s because of the date it comes out: 21 December. Not only the date when the world is supposed to face some sort of Götterdämmerung (per pantpissing fearporn mongerers projecting their appetite for destruction onto an ancient calendar), but also the day after I turn 40. Based on the trailer anyway, the film doesn’t seem to reflect my life around 40, and possibly not that of some others, whatever Judd Apatow and/or the culture industry might have everyone believe. (Cue Teddy Adorno… On second thought, let’s not; the world blowing up and the impending holidays, are gloomy enough.) There’s also the song that accompanies the trailer… at least the way it’s used, anyway: Fun’s “We Are Young.” Something strikes me as profoundly depressing about the lyrics, which hints at the passage of time, even if it focuses on the here and now.
It brings to mind as well Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, whose themes of teenage-boy-obsessed-with-older-woman precedes “Stacy’s Mom” by almost a century.
In Strauss’ opera, the age-conscious Princess Marie Thérèse von Werdenberg (or Marschallin, indicating her status as the wife of a field marshall) is only in her early 30s, which would’ve been “getting up there” in 1740s Vienna. With serene resignation, and yet without apparent regret (in the lyrics, anyway), she muses on the passage of time and tells the aforementioned boy Octavian that he will leave her one day.
He denies it, but that’s what happens eventually through a series of plot machinations, culminating in the tear-jerking aural ménage à trois that concludes the opera.
The main reason for this posting, however, is to ponder what kind of music one “should” be listening to at 40. When the days of youthful vigour have receded like Strauss’ hairline. When we set aside the fatuousness of youth, favouring instead hard-earned wisdom with which to harangue those younger than us. When we become tired of hearing “we told you so” by our elders, and respond by repeating the cycle with the aforementioned youth. (And, for what it’s worth, the age when Strauss was deep into working on an opera that would shock the world!)
So when should we stop rock ‘n rolling all night and partying every day, trading in those times for more “respectable” tastes by listening to classical music or, at the very least, jazz? Should it be 40? Back in 2000, a few years before turning 50, my oldest brother asked me (not even 30 at the time) for recommendations on starting a classical music collection. Not that he wasn’t familiar with classical; my brother had been keen on Philip Glass for years. What was it, then, that my brother was asking? Did he want to get into “real” classical music, from the traditional Dead White European Male canon? Speaking for myself, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I think I defaulted to suggesting Herbert von Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, because I was at a loss as to what a major fan of The Doors might like. Funnily enough, my brother was also aware of the “classical” influences on the band, especially on keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Might that have been a better guide than my half-assed cop-out answer?
A few years later, my brother turned 50. So did then-Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair. In an interview from that occasion, he expressed regret that, even at 50, he couldn’t resist the siren song of rock ‘n roll, and push himself to like classical music: Every so often, I feel I should graduate to classical music, properly. But the truth is, I’m more likely to listen to rock music. I listen to what the kids play.
It’s amazing how the notion of “graduating” to classical remains prevalent, even in recent times. Perhaps it’s stranger to me because it was the first musical genre that consistently appealed to me. Well, that and music from soundtracks, which more or less has the same kind of sound. In fact, my interest in classical is one of the reasons why I felt out of step with my own generation… or, perhaps more accurately, the way it has been shoehorned into a market. Furthermore, I spent most of youth living in the countryside a few minutes west of a small rural town in Ohio, raised by older parents. The latter variable likely skewed my notions of age as well, even though my brothers were born when my parents were quite young.
My mother always played classical music, warping my fragile little mind as it became attuned to Vivaldi, Handel, Beethoven, Chopin, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, both the Waltz King and Bavarian bourgeois enfant terrible Strauss, along with various others. My interest in classical went dormant for a number of years, but it reawakened with a vengeance my first year of high school. It might have been some of the tapes my mother had begun to purchase and play on her Panasonic dual-cassette player, but something compelled me to go through her phonograph records and give them a spin. It all began with the compilation Age of Gold, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic spurring an initial enthusiasm for the Russians. Then I moved on to the Germans, zeroing in on my holy trinity of Romantics: Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss. On trips to The Big City (Toledo, Ohio), I would hunt down multiple recordings of my favourite pieces, trying to expand to others whom I knew I “should” at least appreciate. Some of them I couldn’t, the sway held over me by my favourite composers being so strong. Perhaps this was a sign to look to other genres, and I didn’t know it?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t share my enthusiasm for classical easily with my peers. Guffawing at my tastes was the norm, especially when I wandered around town with my Walkman and classical tapes bulging in my pockets. I did try to latch on to some popular music, and found some things that appealed at some level. But I felt like I was grasping at straws. Would I ever have “normal” teenage musical tastes, like everyone else my age in my hometown, and as the media kept telling me? By those standards, I was over 40 without even reaching 20 yet!
The situation did change at university, however, when I started meeting people from a variety of places with diverse musical tastes. Some confounded me, including a music major who would wear a Metallica t-shirt one day and a Bach t-shirt the next. I even started hearing more popular music that appealed to me, and I began to build that part of my collection. Over the years, as my musical tastes expanded from classical to other genres, as I encountered people more or less equally comfortable with different genres, and as I found evidence of deliberate cross-genre similarities and influences, the question began to grow: How can this be the case, when genre remains a pervasive way of categorizing music and defining our personal tastes?
Of course, it has all culminated to this point, where I’m studying notions of similarity across different music genres, and how they could be used to improve recommender systems. Of course, people desiring to “graduate” from the frivolity of popular music to the gravitas of classical could use such a system to do just that. But that’s not the point. What about the weird kid in a small rural town who likes classical music, but who wants to find popular music that’s similar to what they already enjoy, at least not to seem quite so isolated from their peers? Not that it would provide a guaranteed fix, but maybe it would help.
Beyond systems, however, the real point I wish to make is this: Whatever age you are, it’s best to remain open-minded to serendipitous opportunities to find music that might not be from your “typical” genre, but that somehow resonates deeply with you at specific times and within specific contexts. Matters not, age does. For me, the greatest virtue in terms of musical taste is to renounce (depending on the exclusiveness of one’s musical tastes) snobbery or reverse-snobbery. I’ve spent the latter part of my 30s thinking about making this possibility easier. Hopefully, I will continue this endeavour into my 40s, and beyond.
To symbolize this movement forward, and at the risk of perhaps seeming egomaniacal, I conclude with another “40.” Richard Strauss’ Opus 40, that is; the opening from his Ein Heldenleben.
This is my 40…