Earlier this year I was vinyl-hunting at Dr. Disc when whatever Liam was playing on the store’s stereo system caught my ear. There was something in the voice that grabbed me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
He held up a copy of an album called Epic.
“Sharon Van Etten,” he said. “It’s hot right now.”
When it didn’t burn my fingers, I bought the album and brought it home. And as I tend to do with all the piles of CDs and records and DVDs and books vying for my attention at any given time, I forgot about it for a little while.
There was snow on the ground, though winter was supposed to be on its way out by then. Meteorologists are dirty liars. I’d just reconnected with someone I lost touch with seven years earlier. Over those seven years I thought about her a lot, wondered how and where she was, but had no way to get in touch with her and didn’t expect we would ever see each other again.
Fate or Facebook conspired to bring us back together. I found myself at her house one night. She said she’d always wanted to be with me, and now that there was nothing standing in our way and we were both a little older and wiser, what did I think?
I wasn’t sure what I thought. After a lifetime of feeling not good enough because things never seemed to break right for me in the romance department, I was enjoying being single for maybe the first time. I was in a pretty good place. And here was an opportunity I never thought I would have, when I wasn’t expecting or looking for it, when I wasn’t even sure I wanted it.
I didn’t feel I had much to give anyone in a relationship at the time. My head was very much in the music I was making. I didn’t have a lot of money. My idea of a great date was staying in and just talking and enjoying existing in the same space with another person. I didn’t think that would appeal to too many people.
And I was reluctant to put myself out there. I’d had some bad experiences. I didn’t want to mess with the comfortable place I was in. But I knew if I didn’t give it a shot, somewhere in the back of my mind I would always wonder what might have been.
It was such a clear-cut case of having another chance with “the one that got away”, the whole thing was almost a cliché come to life. All that was missing was an Air Supply song on the soundtrack and a hidden wind machine.
With all of that swimming around in my head and the double-edged knife of indecision jabbing at my sides, I crawled into bed one night, turned out the light, slid on a battered old pair of Sennheiser headphones they don’t make anymore, and listened to Epic for the first time. I liked it. The more I heard, the more I liked. Then I got to a song called “Love More” and something else happened. It smacked me in the face with its open-ended beauty. I hadn’t heard a song like that in a long time.
You know how sometimes you hear a piece of music and you get this strange feeling like you’re changing in some barely tangible way while listening to it? Like you’re not quite the same person anymore once it’s over. They could do a hundred different tests on you and find you’re no different on any molecular or biological level, but you know something has shifted. It’s not even that the words to the song feel like they were ripped out of your own life. It’s not that at all. It’s that there’s something in there that resonates with you on a deeper level than most things can get to, in a place beyond words, and it’s beautiful and painful at the same time.
That’s what that song did for me. It was what I needed to hear right then. And around the time the vocal harmonies were doing their last long build and I was hoping the song would never end, I decided I needed to take the chance and see where this potential romantic adventure would lead me. Fear and insecurity be damned. I would let my guard down. I would take the chance.
So I did.
The whole thing was a grotesque mess. She lied, cheated, made me feel guilty about devoting any small amount of time or attention to music instead of her, denigrated everything good I tried to give her, and then she turned it around and found a way to make me the villain somehow. But in spite of how spectacularly wrong we turned out to be for each other and how ugly the fallout was when it all broke apart, I’m kind of glad I had the experience — and not just because I got a bitter breakup album out of it. I learned a lot about what not to do and what not to accept if there’s ever a next time.
One of the things that fascinates me about art of all kinds is the ability it gives you to attach your own meaning to it, and how you’re then allowed to discover the meaning has mutated when you return to it after a long absence, as if the art has changed — when really it’s you who’s done the changing. When I heard that song again after the mess was over, it meant something different to me and took on a more defeated, bittersweet feeling.
I haven’t listened to the album or that song in a while now. I think I came to feel a little too close to it. And I was a bit of a mess when the relationship ended, because I ended up investing and caring a lot more than I thought I would. A lot of feeling got packed into a short period of time. But when I return to the song again somewhere down the road, I expect it’ll mean something different to me again.
I found out “Love More” was recently used in one of those montages at the end of Grey’s Anatomy. And I’ve never been more glad to have mostly phased television out of my life. I got to hear the song for the first time alone in the dark. I got to decide for myself what it meant to me, without having some television show stuff it down my throat in a glorified music video designed to wring pathos out of saccharine nothingness.
This got me thinking larger thoughts about how people are introduced to music and the role a medium like television plays. Wasn’t it the grotesquely under-appreciated, eons-ahead-of-his-time Ernie Kovacs who said it’s called a medium because it’s so rarely well-done?
I think it’s a good thing when people are introduced to music they might never otherwise come in contact with, whether it’s through a Volkswagen commercial or a glorified soap opera. And when the artists in question are still alive and it’s not a case of their corpses being defiled for someone else’s profit, I’m glad they get to make some money. If having her song placed in Grey’s Anatomy increases Sharon’s visibility and does anything to help her go on making the music she wants to make, I’m all for it.
But as an artist and an art-lover, that whole thing will never sit quite right with me. It’s impossible for me to overstate how glad I am that I’ve never unearthed any of my favourite music that way. I had to work to find a lot of the things I wanted to hear, and in some cases it took years of digging. Before it was finally remastered and reissued last year, Dennis Wilson’s solo work was almost impossible to find outside of MP3s with crummy sound quality hiding out in various crevices of the internet. Starsailor, the album Tim Buckley considered the finest he ever made, is still going for insane prices on eBay. You don’t want to know how much I paid for my hard copy back in 2002. But it was worth every penny. And there’s something wonderful about having no idea what you’re going to get when you pop an album in the CD player or on the turntable — something the internet has done a good deal to erode, for better or worse.
When I sat down to listen to big star’s Third and John Cale’s Music for a New Society for the first time way back when, I had no idea what I was about to hear beyond what little I was able to guess at from what I read about the music. I had no way to audition even thirty-second snippets of the songs beforehand. There’s something magical about that unpredictability. Hearing a great, soul-crushing song like “I Keep a Close Watch” for the first time in an episode of Desperate Housewives would have just been…weird.
I like to keep some of the mystery intact. I like having to work a little harder to find the things I really connect with. There’s a huge difference between hearing something in passing at an independent record store, and hearing that same song in a commercial or a TV show with the music given a whole new context because of the images it’s attached to. And my own personal bias comes into play here, because I think it’s another thing altogether when we’re talking about good TV shows and films that aspire to be art — something more than just escapist fluff. In those cases, original music and/or the judicious use of already-existing material can combine to create something really interesting.
In the words of the once-great Eric Clapton, it’s in the way that you use it. Compare the masterful use of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” in Magnolia to its current cringe-inducing appearance in a commercial for the “reality” series Intervention, and you start to see what I mean.
The point, I guess, is that I’m not about to start watching Grey’s Anatomy anytime soon, even if Patrick Dempsey is one dreamy dude. But I’m really glad I heard Sharon Van Etten’s music that one day at Dr. Disc.