An Experiment in Pop Potency Can your favorite album wear itself out if played too often?

For a raging atheist and ridiculer of all things paranormal, astrological, fabled, new-agey, and “spiritual,” I am very superstitious when it comes to music. For example, like countless fans and critics, I’m awed by the creative zenith reached by Radiohead’s Kid A. I consider it the best album ever made.

I never listen to it.

I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I play it too often, it will become too familiar and lose its impact. And yes, I know what this makes me. I’m the miserable comic-book nerd who never removes his treasures from the mylar to read them because the oils present on human fingers could damage the pages. I’m the joyless action-figure collector who loves his toys so much that he never plays with them.

My favorite records are the ones that mean something to me. The prospect of one of my loves petering out, becoming taken for granted, or even transmogrifying into mocking familiarity… well, I guess I’d rather try to preserve that original spark.

As I see it, this pursuit eventually reaches one of two conclusions: (1) declaring futility, giving in to temptation, and breeding the aforementioned familiarity, or (2) sacrifice. Of course, there is also the very plausible possibility that I am full of shit.

So, to find out if my fears were real or misplaced, I conducted an experiment. I plucked one of my favorite albums* from my library and decided to listen to it way, way too often. I wiped a tear aside thinking I might very well be turning over one of my most beloved little lambs to a slaughter, but I soldiered on in the name of music-nerd pseudoscience. Behold, the journey.


Phase 1: The Honeymoon.

During the course of my deliberate overdose, I noticed four distinct phases in my attitude toward the music. This initial phase was somewhat unexpected. The first listen was normal — no different than putting on any record. After that, I thought I would quickly start getting sick of hearing the same thing over and over. However, the ensuing handful of listens were surprisingly revelatory. Repeated spins reaffirmed my adoration, and at the same time allowed me to reexamine its details. There were intricacies I’d forgotten in the downtime, as well as some I’d never picked up on before.

It was great, very much like meeting up with old friends and being reminded of all the things you love about them. Surely I couldn’t grow to hate something that was giving me so much joy. Right?


Phase 2: Uh-oh.

Remember when you were a kid and you continually lobbied parents and babysitters to let you have ice cream for every meal? You truly loved it, and you thought shoveling it down three times a day (and maybe another additional time as a between-meal snack) would be fantastic. Well, there were good reasons your sensible guardians turned you down back then. Similarly, there are very good reasons not to listen to the same song or album ad nauseum, even if you love it.

Predictably, things took a nosedive soon after my appreciation was renewed. Sitting on my couch, I would glare at the stereo like it was a boot on my car. Driving around with the speakers blaring, I started wondering if the radio’s evangelist channel or Delilah would be an improvement. Over and over and over and over. It was not looking good. The sounds I loved not long ago were starting to rival crying children or the token douchebag incapable of talking at a reasonable volume while on a cell phone in public.

There’s a reason some governments’ chosen method of torture is repeatedly playing the same songs. It works.


Phase 3: Punch-drunk

I stewed in hatred for the songs, the album, the artist that made it, and the nice elderly parents on whom hate-logic pins the blame for spawning said artist and raising him to appreciate music. Eventually though, the hate began to flake away. This was not due to some breakthrough on my part; rather, the sheer weariness of it all rendered me quite slaphappy and not entirely sane.

The easiest way to illustrate this is to pick a random word and repeat it over and over out loud. Go ahead, try it. In less than a minute, a perfectly normal word that we use every day and never question, like “ball,” will start to sound completely devoid of meaning. It becomes nothing more than an odd sound, no different than the grunts and squeals of an animal. Eventually you start to laugh at yourself for the ridiculousness of it all. This is what my music became: a collection of sounds, odd and interesting, but no longer inspiring anything besides giggles and ridicule.

The fear of sinking into mocking familiarity I held at the outset was essentially realized at this
point. I no longer loved it. I no longer loathed it. It was a joke. I laughed out loud at the sections that wore thin; I performed sarcastically grand gestures at crescendos or changes; I sang along with the melody in an annoying and exaggerated “la dee da tee da tee da” fashion.

Fortunately, I never had any guests or passengers in my car during a playing in this stage because I surely would have been pummeled for being such an ass. So, my biggest fear was a reality. Fantastic. Clearly the experiment was over, right? Wrong! There was more beyond this hellish quagmire I heaved myself into, there had to be! And I was going to find out what it was, damn it.


Phase 4: All right, fuck this.

Hmm, okay so maybe there wasn’t much beyond the aforementioned hellish quagmire. I pressed on, continuing to listen, hoping I would stumble upon yet another plane of experiencing the music. Sadly, the only developments that occurred from this point on were nondevelopments. The meaninglessness grew slowly to become the dominant aspect of listening, with less and less room for anything else.

Mocking familiarity was my nightmare outcome, but at least the material still engaged me at that stage. Instead, what I was left with was similar to leaving the TV for background noise while you’re doing things around the house. It’s there, it’s doing stuff, but it’s just noise. Who cares?

After a chunk of time spent zoning out and forgetting I was supposed to be listening, I decided my pursuit had attained pointlessness. I declared “Fuck it,” to no one in particular, and pressed the “stop” button. Done.


Epilogue/Phase 5

As it turned out, I wasn’t quite done. As might be suspected following such a misadventure, I took some time to reacquaint myself with silence. Beautiful, glorious silence. After a while, I resumed my normal listening habits and schedule, and soon the horrors of my self-imposed musical Gitmo faded. My overkilled beloved went back to its old place on the shelf collecting dust, rode hard and hung up wet. I now thought of it as a kind of relic, a remnant of something powerful that once existed, since rendered impotent.

It was ruined, I believed, but my opinion of it was not. I may have descended into hate while immersed in its playing, but I didn’t grow to hate it as a whole. I still considered it a great album and the good memories I had of it were maintained alongside the more recent bad ones. I didn’t see myself enjoying it the way I used to ever again, however.

Weeks and months passed, and as with most unpleasant things in our past — cramming for tests, a terrible first date, a broken limb from doing something stupid — my experiment became cause to just shake my head and laugh. It’s an odd thing about humanity that we often develop feelings of nostalgia and amusement for a past situation that made us hateful and miserable at the time. I guess this phenomenon is a close cousin to the old comic code: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.

It was in this vein that, after a few months, the notion struck me to listen to the record again, for old time’s sake. The pangs had long dematerialized, and the thought of hearing it again no longer doubled me over in revulsion. It was just an album again. I didn’t expect to hate it, but I did anticipate the mocking familiarity to be there, with it possibly turning into background noise fairly soon after.

Again, I was wrong, and I was glad to be wrong. The music was… well, good — fresh and re-energized. During the downtime, it reclaimed its impact. I certainly spoiled how I heard it during my endless playings, but the time to breathe gave it life again. Music wasn’t as fragile as I thought. Was it like hearing it again for the first time? No. But that’s an unattainable goal. The first time is the first time, that’s it. Why was I romanticizing the first listen so much anyway? No one can have a full appreciation after just one spin; there are too many intricacies to weed through. A certain level of familiarity is necessary to grasp the thing. It’s like sex. Show me a virgin who’s a fantastic lay and I’ll show you a liar.

The trick is to stay with the music as the way you hear it evolves and changes. Even if you do your best to kill it, as I did, it’s reassuring to know that it will endure. It won’t be the same — the songs will adopt a new meaning from the simple cause-and-effect result of it being overplayed — but new meanings can always develop, and those can be enjoyed just as much. It’s comforting to find that resiliency is present in music, and that a favorite can always be a favorite, no matter what.

* To focus solely on the experience and results, I’m choosing not to reveal the album in question. If it’s driving you crazy and you really need to know, e-mail me.

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