Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shine a little love

One consequence of Noel's epic Popless series is that commenters begin to look forward to the week when some favorite artist will appear. As Noel approached the end of the D's in this week's installment, a reader asked whether ELO will be featured next week. "Tune in and see!" Noel replied. "(Or I could just end the suspense. Yes.)"

That reader was not me posting incognito, but it could have been. I'm looking forward to seeing what Noel will write about Electric Light Orchestra, the first band other than the Beatles that I fell in love with. When I got my driver's license, one of my first solo stops was Cat's Records on Brainerd Road -- to buy Time.

Like all early loves, ELO came to me secondhand. Pop music wasn't a presence at my house; my parents tended more toward easy listening, non-contemporary Christian, and standards. I treasured the moments I spent riding with my older brother in his red Mustang II, equipped with a state-of-the-art eight-track player, into which Dwayne frequently slid Out Of The Blue. (I still expect "Summer and Lightning" to fade out about one and a half minutes in, as the tracks change.)

My high school music teacher, Mrs. Greene, was another influence; enamored of ELO's classical influences, she frequently played them in class. It was important to me, as a budding intellectual, that this wasn't just pop fluff. I had the same response to the Beatles, constantly bolstering my visceral thrill at the music with scholarly ammunition about how serious, significant, and high class it all was.

None of us choose the music that shapes our taste; it's chosen for us by those we look up to and emulate. What would I be listening to today if Dwayne had been a fan of Rush instead of Jeff Lynne? Or Springsteen (whom I only learned to love well into adulthood)? Or Elvis Costello?

Because of ELO, my taste buds were permanently skewed toward big, lushly orchestrated, Beatlesque pop. It's the musical equivalent of the sweet tooth I inherited from my father, who never failed to end a meal with dessert. That center of gravity of my musical universe broadened and widened and grew more complicated over time, of course; there's plenty of music I love and treasure that has very little to do with falsetto harmonies and ringing guitars.

But we are all eternally vulnerable, in ways that bypass reflective thought, to that which evokes those emotional and aesthetic experiences of our first budding maturity. And so I will never have much perspective on ELO or the power pop universe that I first entered through ELO. It's all pure pleasure for me, only slightly tinged with the nagging inferiority complex that once caused me to hoard positive reviews from magazines and newspapers. I knew my love was lightweight compared to the angst and sturm und drang of the music others were using to form their identity. But I was helplessly in thrall already; all I could do was defend myself as best I could from the ridicule of those with more respectable tastes.

It's a consolation, of course, that after a long period in which Lynne's success and ubiquity earned him the scorn of true music lovers, ELO is back in the critical mainstream. Wait long enough, and everything that was officially wrong with culture at any particular time will be revealed as somehow worthwhile. But just as nobody needs permission to enjoy chocolate ice cream, I'd be in love with that sparkling, pounding sound even if it were as disreputable as Milli Vanilli.

Naturally I'm grateful for the accidents that led me down this path, even as I realize that the alternative universe me whose brother listened to Blue Oyster Cult is equally grateful. I'm happy with the music that pushes my buttons and keeps my synapses from reuptaking that serotonin. And yet -- I also want it to be good. And so I wait somewhat anxiously to see what Noel will write, while remaining fairly confident that because he loves me, he must also have some affection for what I love. It's not the double-blind validation that I'll forever be seeking with some part of my anxious, other-directed psyche, but it's plenty good enough for a grown-up who's learned to accept her precritical pleasures.


Adam Villani said...

Have you listened to Panda Bear's "Person Pitch" album? Its Brian Wilsoniness may also appeal to your Jeff Lynne tooth.

Eric Grubbs said...

Have you ever heard the Idle Race, Lynne's pre-ELO band? "Imposters of Life Magazine" is totally worth checking out . . .

Victor said...

One of my earliest musical memories was watching the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest ... the world has never been the same, even though Abba-love was an eccentricity when I first came over to the left side of the Atlantic.

Anonymous said...

I'm listening to ELO's Time as I read this post (again) and, I have to say, I can completely understand why you love them so much. I can't believe I haven't been introduced to them previously, but I'm so glad I know of them now. :) Especially since I have my very own turn table and ELO on vinyl.