Stages of Music Addiction

Written by Peter W. Coulson

My taste in music went through several stages. I think every music addict has experienced this. Every music addict, not music listener. I was going to write a long definition of addict here, but when I say addict, I mean the kind of person who has a compulsive need to listen to lots of music.

I don’t mean music snob, either. Music snobs have a carefully curated inventory—my word choice is deliberate—of about twenty artists they’re willing to listen to, none of whom you’ve heard of, even if you pride yourself on knowing the names of a lot of bands. (Wine is probably the closest analogy. If music were wine, music snobs would only listen to red Burgundies that cost more than a car payment.)

Music addicts, on the other hand, listen to everything. I’m trying not to cringe as I write that. For some reason, ‘I listen to all kinds of music’ has evolved into a shibboleth for people who listen to about four kinds of music at most. When I say all kinds of music, I really do mean all kinds of music.

But I want to talk about stages of taste, not precise definitions. I can’t speak for every music addict, but I think I speak for at least a substantial minority of us when I say that we had a distinct cringe phase. There was a point where we were old enough to decide what we liked and didn’t like, independent of our parents, but only to an extent. It was usually around 5th or 6th grade. Some of us decided that only guitar-based music made between 1965 and 2000 was real music, except possibly the Foo Fighters. (I was one of those people, though I never got into the Foo Fighters or left homophobic comments on Justin Bieber videos.) Some of us discovered Panic! at the Disco at the same time we discovered black eyeliner. Some of us only listened to metal.

Those of us who left those phases became addicts. I, personally, gravitated towards indie music. (I think MGMT may have been responsible; I was exposed to ‘Kids’ at a vulnerable age.) The summer before 9th grade, a family friend and I were talking about music and she asked me what bands I was listening to. I rattled off a couple of the late 90s bands I had gotten into and she shook her head and told me I should branch out. “Listen to The Strokes,” she said. About two months later, I sat down at my computer and made a conscious decision to create an indie playlist. Just for the sake of branching out, I thought. I had left the worst part of my first cringe phase and was much more open to new music than I’d been when I was 12. I opened Spotify and started searching the names of bands that I’d heard of but never heard, some more mainstream than others. MGMT, of course. Vampire Weekend. The Strokes. This continued until I had a serviceable playlist that was about half current stuff and half respectable older stuff.

Within a few months, though, I began to categorically reject everything I had listened to before 9th grade. I started to legislate what I was allowed to enjoy. The only way to explain this is to look at the previous, cringe stage that I was trying to reject. Led Zeppelin, for example, had once been my favorite band, not necessarily because I saw them as a hyper-masculine antidote to saccharine teen pop, but because I enjoyed listening to them. At the same time, I knew that that same saccharine pop I spent so much energy hating was also genuinely enjoyable. One day in 7th grade, I discovered that I had learned every word to ‘We R Who We R’ without ever putting in the effort to memorize its lyrics. I’d heard it many times—my brother, at the time, was listening to a lot of Top 40, and he always commandeered the car radio on the way to and from school—and it was as if the words surreptitiously lodged themselves in my mind, because the song was, and is, catchy as hell. But, I told myself, I would never be caught dead listening to Ke$ha voluntarily. She doesn’t even write her own songs! And she uses AutoTune! Even though at that point I was probably fully aware that most of the Motown singers I liked didn’t write their own songs, either. So I decided that I hated her music. In the same vein, I went through a period in high school of about three years during which I never voluntarily listened to anything that would’ve been played on our local classic rock station (100 point 7 THE BAY—Baltimore’s CLASSIC ROCK). I don’t think I snapped out of it until after my junior year. Today I like to think I’ve achieved a synthesis. I listen to anything and everything.

That, of course, presents its own set of problems. For one, ‘I listen to all kinds of music’ still sounds like a cop-out no matter how much I want it not to be; for another, my music addiction remains. As I said before, a music addict is the kind of person who has a compulsive need to listen to lots of music. I can’t speak for every music addict, but I have spent large portions of every summer since 9th grade with headphones over my ears, frowning at my computer screen, Spotify in one window and various dependably unsatisfactory music-review sites in others, while my mother mutters about the latest article my grandmother sent her about hearing-loss rates among Millennials. My hit rate is almost always quite low, yet I keep doing it again and again.

I keep doing it because I know I’ll eventually find either the kind of song that I instantly love or, more typically, the kind I love after listening to it three or four times. I play those songs to death, of course. Some overstay their welcome sooner than others—‘When the Sun Hits’ and ‘Everybody Wants to Love You’ probably took the longest—but I inevitably get a little tired of them. Back to Spotify and the Internet. Repeat ad aeternum, each discovery session just a little more desperate than the last. Addiction is too obvious a metaphor.