I went back to some punk rock music I haven’t listened to in a long while. I put it on while washing dishes and while doing some relatively mindless work. There’s something different about headphones vs music played through speakers. Headphone listening is spaceless and bodyless, like it takes place directly in my brain. Listening alone in a car is somewhat similar, because of the confinement – I can’t really move around. I haven’t been to a live show in a while, late last spring, and it was much longer before that. When I used to go to shows a lot – and I should say, that was also a time I listened to music a lot more often than I have time to do now, and in a different way; I used to put music on and really focus on the music, in the way that watching TV or a movie is the center of my attention when I’m doing that, as opposed to having music as a soundtrack for other activities – anyway, when I went to shows more there was a relationship between solo listening and live performance.

I would listen alone a lot then go to a show, and I’d come back from a show and listen alone a lot. The solo listening experience created a kind of, well, a sort of church experience. There’s one kind of church experience, as I vaguely remember it after my 20+ years as an atheist, where parts of a church service are an individual experience that takes place in the presence of other people. Lots of solo listening before a show helped increase the sense that the band was singing about stuff in my life, it upped that individual experience, so that it was me and the band or me and the song above all. In another way, live shows with songs I really related to were a kind of group connection – we all have this experience of this music together, and we all have this life experience that this music connects with – which moves in another direction from the individual experience. I don’t know how much this is a matter of my personality, the kind of music I listen to (it tends to be a bit overwrought and bookish, it’s a bit like reading in a way), or of live performances and music more generally. And coming back from a really good show I would listen alone with a greater sense of connection to the song and the performer tied to the live show, and I would remember that feeling of togetherness too.

With this recent bout of listening again I went back to music I really liked – I still like it, I just haven’t listened to it in a while – by bands I’ve seen live, seen play really good shows. A few things jumped out at me this time that I don’t remember thinking much about before. There’s a kind of sound that I associate with midwest pop punk – big guitars with lots of distortion and often played palm-muted, occasional dissonant parts but with hooks in the songs, gruff vocals, multiple singers, and often big anthemic choruses or breakdowns. This goes with a bleak but not despairing sensibility in the lyrics – music about negative emotions related to hopes and aspirations that are frustrated but not impossible.

Though I know women who are into it, I think it’s masculine music, written from and mostly about guys’ experiences, and particular kinds of guys. It’s not the same kind of masculinity as in some other music, a bit less macho (which is not to say it’s necessary more feminist or otherwise better in terms of gender equality) but still I think partly about being a guy. I think that’s probably part of what appeals to me in this stuff, and I can’t quite articulate why. (At one point I would have been unhappy about this, the idea that part of what appeals to me in this is that I’m a guy and this is guy music, and I would have taken it as evidence of multiple personal failings. That could still be the case but I’m not nearly as worked up about it as I used to be.)

These songs often involve a degree of emotional vulnerability in the lyrical content, which I think goes with the sound: shouting angrily about feeling sad or lonely is different than singing plaintively about it. It’s a kind of emotional self-defense that helps express that sort of feelings. There’s a connection here as well to the style of singing together: two dudes shouting together about this kind of feelings are different from two men singing quietly about it. Again it’s a kind of self-defense and a way to be vulnerable with another guy while feeling a bit more in control, I think. I mean, picture two men shouting together about something, then picture two men sobbing together. They’re just different images in their emotional charge, even if the words they say express the same feelings. Some of the stuff in these songs is just as sob-worthy as it’s shoutable, but the genre convention in the music is shouting rather than crying, and that’s part of the emotional appeal to me. The generally tough sound goes along with this.

The tough guy trappings facilitate the emotional vulnerability for people for whom that’s uncomfortable (it’s a bit like cracking jokes in serious situations, not that I would know anything about that), both in that it creates a kind of script for admitting to and experiencing that kind of feeling within a masculine identity and it helps keep a sense of control over those feelings and the sense of vulnerability: it makes for a limited feeling of exposure and loss of control, instead of a total feeling like that. (Thinking of it now, I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of the stuff I listen to has a lot of drinking and drug references. I drink rarely and in small amounts but the music I like tends to be soaked in beer. Alcohol and hard to express but strongly felt feelings, I mean, I’m not sure how to finish this sentence but you probly get what I’m saying and whoa I love you man, like for real, seriously.)

Hmm. I’ve often wondered if I like darker and sadder music because of who I am, or if I am who I am because of all the time I’ve spent with that kind of music. As in, is it a one-way street – I feel this way so I listen to music that feels this way – or a two-way street – who I am and how I feel shapes what I listen to but the music I listen to also shapes who I am and my emotional scripts. I guess it’s just gotta be the second. Anyway, I’ve noticed, repeatedly, how much of my favorite music is on the negative side, in the sense that it’s music that, in a way, I hope my kids grow up not really relating to, or at least not in the ways that I have and do. And I wonder if I should spend more time listening to more feel good music. Probly.