Someone on Kazaa had a full album for you to download. Everything was in perfect queue, loading in tandem, a Busby Berkeley chorus line cascading one by one into the pool of a hard drive. But maybe it wasn’t Kazaa. Maybe it was Limewire, or the one with the unpleasant red and orange color scheme? Perhaps it was an open server linked to some torrent savant. We all used the one that gave us the most luck, that wasn’t shut down; our veritable free media slot machines.
A lot of these feelings are grounded in adolescent and pre-adolescent worlds. Maybe it’s because I was entrenched in adolescence during the last gasps of the pre-streaming, all-digital universe. There’s nothing so rare or unattainable anymore, and I’ll admit that I sometimes miss the hunt and the satisfaction of finding something after an hour or so of scanning message boards.
A personal history highlights the media’s evolution.
It started with one of those massive 300 CD briefcases, the kind meant for living room floors and permanent travel. For at least two years in my preteens I could be seen publicly carrying one around. I’d like to think I had a personality, but at the time I was pretty certain it rested in those countless plastic pages, and I constantly made a show of careful selection, my Walkman always dwarfed by the wayside. As the tremendously overweight and awkward star of my 8th grade production of The Music Man, I brooded over a rejection AIM from a girl named Katy while sitting in the bleachers, lingering on the Weezer page of my personal angst bible in between increasingly embarrassing dance rehearsals.
I went to a boarding high school where downloading services and pornography lit up every screen. My downloading habits were almost entirely album oriented, with an eye towards labeling and completion bordering pathological. A lot of this could be chalked up to having an older brother. His interests influenced mine in any number of ways. We shared music collections even after he moved to Texas, and when he still lived home after a brief stint in New York, my computer was his music’s conduit to his iPod. This was a wonderful agreement, and I recall fondly balmy spring Saturdays spent watching my brother upload and label cd’s in my sophomore year high school dorm room, not unlike the way I used to watch him play video games.
Onward to roughly 2006-2008, a time of months-early album leaks; what counts for an illegal download heyday. When I was a freshman at Hampshire College, I was practically catatonic in my antisocial behavior, but at the very least I had the cultural cache of the new Joanna Newsom (for a fleeting moment before my catatonia enveloped my ability to speak with other people).
And then, after some years living in Brooklyn, I was robbed and lost all of it, and I was devastated.
Well, maybe not devastated, but a certain degree of despondency pervaded my collecting habits. At first I panic downloaded discography torrents, a fools errand for certain. Like most self-centered people in world’s-smallest-violin situations, I began a terrible thinkpiece on the matter, outlining the ways I could learn from a situation that means little to nobody. I started mostly collecting vinyl from shows I went to, and became so overwhelmed by new music I settled lazily on only following the current wave of garage rock
There’s the episode of Pete and Pete where little Pete hears a song once and, through memory, recollects the melody, fruitlessly attempting to recreate the song with whatever musicians and resources he can find. This is maybe an impossible notion today, when all moments are archived digitally for endless future consumption. In the episode it functions wonderfully as a stand in for the driving force behind a great deal of creative work, to reconnect to and communicate a moment, feeling and the very tune that succinctly embodies those things.
Randomly, two or so years later, I reclaimed most of my old external hard drive, and with it most of my old music, and this is where the me that mindlessly collected things and the me that just didn’t care anymore came to blows.
There are a couple ways to revisit old music. We can reevaluate something, see it as better or worse than we saw it before. This kind of looking back can underline a schism and even a bit of contention between the current self and the old, and it can also see the listener trying to correct something from the past.
The other form of revisiting is more of a reuniting. It is, perhaps, the quiet evening rereading journal entries as your decade-old burned copy of Elliott Smith’s XO spins ceaselessly into permanent scratches and the digital burps of Kazaa downloads (dated, of course, by your horrible teenage handwriting and accompanying marker smudges, as well as your use of ONE L in Elliott, you fool). On this end, with new old music, this is what I wanted. Warmth in familiarity, the ineffable desire for transportable sound.
When I reclaimed my old music, there was a lot to process. Where to begin? And what had I really missed? I was looking a little bit for that Pete moment, a transformative song. And I wanted to feel old heartbreak.
Alas, I ended up more often than not in conflict with my younger self, and there were a lot of things that bewildered me about my old collection, namely all of the mid-2000’s dance pop and twee. There’s just the briefest feeling of “I was fun once” when I listen to something like an Architecture in Helsinki album now and can’t last past a few tracks (though this is less about “how did I listen to this?” and more about “how did I listen to this all of the time?”). Just as well, The Hold Steady, a band that I loved so dearly in college, sounded so unbelievably awful to me now. It wasn’t just the grating bombast of their production and the snarling non-singing, either. I had learned to embrace that before, and never cared much for those things in the first place. I can see clearly now all of the reasons I loved them then, and that’s maybe what bothers me the most. As a college freshman virgin with one or several chips on my shoulder, Boys and Girls in America amalgamated both the idealized memories of a high school life I never had and the arch, authorial tone that I used to distance myself from a comfortable social existence.
I was thrust into the past in a bad way. All of that restless downloading represented a lost person to me. The things that did bring me back, took me to a person I no longer was, and more often than not, a version of myself I didn’t particularly care for. Other forms of aural satisfaction had also been deadened by time, meaning I couldn’t quite revisit the old haunts either. If you are in your mid-20’s and live in Brooklyn and go out to drink regularly, bartenders have ensured that every popular heartbreak song has been your background music for some time.
So this is both resolved and not, as it often is for people in my age bracket, by a pop-punk song, and not even a particularly notable or exceptional one.
Because I had vague notions of what “real punk” was and also because I was the worst, I had a put-upon disdain for pop punk in my teens, even if many of the things I liked then contradicted that stance. Perhaps it was the synthesis of my AIM rejection and my first listening to Pinkerton, but I loved Weezer more than anything. In an issue of Rolling Stone still remembered for calling Bright Eyes the next Bob Dylan, a small blurb had Rivers Cuomo recommending the band Ozma. I immediately took to my computer and downloaded whatever I could find, some songs connected to albums and some of them not. At that time, some of the file-labeling errors were especially egregious. Some of the mistakes were common (how many people, do you think, had “Jimmy Buffet-Pina Colada Song” sitting on their desktop browsers?) Other times it was simply sound-alike confusion. This is how I ended up with the song “Kool-Aid Man” by Ozma on my computer. It’s definitely not Ozma’s song, but I was easily fooled. The differences were evident but the sonic pleasures matched up for my less than discerning ears. It was still probably the song of “Ozma’s” that I listened to most, the silly lyrics still branded on my brain.
I will write you a million acrostic poems
Push you in a shopping cart
All the way home
This is what romance was in my 12 year old brain: vague gestures and, because of the time I’d spent thinking about girls while trailing my mother around the IGA, grocery stores.
The song came back to me. It keeps doing that. And yet, in pursuit, few details and dead mp3 links remain. Whatever device it was once on is definitely wiped. From internet research, I know that the song is a demo, by a band named Your Real Dad. I tracked this much information from an Ozma fan message board. From there, some talk on a likely ancient pro-wrestling message board and a thread debating the merits of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, respectively. There is a dead link posted by a member of the band, and a last.fm page that claims the song is a whopping 4:38 minutes long. But still, nothing. No mp3, only clues.
So it goes. All of the music at my fingertips and this song is only a memory, traceless but still egging me on to search every now and again. The technology that offered so much content over the years has taken away from me as well, and so I, like little Pete, am stuck with this traceless song, a private-portal to heartbreak, puberty and restless folly. Let’s keep it that way.