But occasionally something shakes itself free from the all-encompassing pop susurration, and grabs my attention. It doesn't have to be something new, just new to me. Sometimes I hear something interesting playing on the PA as I stand in line to buy my sandwich at the Students' Union shop, or it might even be (whisper it) the audio-colouring to an advert I hear on the TV.
Most often it's a one off. I heard part of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" on the car radio one morning and had to write down and then Google a snatch of the lyrics to find out what it was. The album from which it is taken left me disappointed, but consistency over an entire album is a rare and neglected virtue, and this doesn't bother me -- I love the three-minute song as a pure art-form, and "Fast Car" is up there with "Waterloo Sunset" and dozens of other story-driven three-chord miracles.
Despite my highbrow inclinations, I have always been a poptastic hit spotter, and I am rarely wrong about a release's chart potential, even in those genres I never listen to myself. I can hear what is right about Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You", for example, and what is wrong about Dolly Parton's original. I get the pop chills whenever I hear it.
But I don't really care about the charts. What really makes me sit up is hearing a stand-out song by an eccentric, clever, ironically passionate singer-songwriter with things to say. Of course, if you start your listening career with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon already at the height of their powers, it takes a lot of song to make you stir in your chair.
I came across Ani DiFranco playing "Hypnotized" when I was surfing the net looking for information on tenor guitars. Up popped this YouTube video of an attitudinous young woman performing live a strange song that, well, mesmerized me.* In another life, it was clear to me, she and I had endured a brief but oddly angry affair, like two confused people who have grabbed at straws but ending up grasping nettles. To let go or hold on, which would hurt least? It's not you, Ani, it's me. Actually, no, it is you.
So that's how you found meThe song made me think of a series of real-life half-affairs in rainy places, in the confusing years before the Prof entered my life. I remembered endless conversations, huddled in the dark under the flyover near the old railway station, sheltering from the endless rain of 1970 sheeting down in the cinematic brightness of the streetlamps. And Heidelberg in 1971 -- a colossal thunderstorm that soaked me and my travelling companion and our rucksacks crossing a vast empty space on the way to the "Sleep-In" (do they still have Sleep-Ins in Europe?). Then a year later there was Salzburg with Norwegian hitchhiker Trinnie snug against my side, shoplifting fruit from beneath my waterproof poncho as we brushed past market stalls gleaming in the light summer rain.
Rain falling around me
Looking down at a worm
With a long way to go...
And the traffic was hissing by
I was homesick and I was high...
That feeling of being surrounded by a language in which you can only smile and be polite is the rocket fuel of teenage anger and frustration, isn't it? How momentous it is, when someone just like you first steps over the barrier, listens to what you have to say, and talks to you in a language you can understand about the things that seem to matter. Even more so, if that person is also reaching across the divide of gender. If you are lucky in the kind and quality of these early encounters, as I have been, it will colour your whole subsequent life.
I was surrounded by a language
In which I could say only "Hello"
And "Thank you very much",
But you spoke so I could understand
And I drew a treasure map on your hand.
But sometimes -- in fact, quite often -- the most enduring of these encounters last just three minutes, rhyme, and have a catchy guitar hook and a middle eight. A good song heard at the right time is a friend for life. A good song heard at the right time can change, even save, your life. And if you think that sounds melodramatic, then you've not really been listening.
Addendum 1/10/10: I knew something was nagging at the back of my mind while I was writing this post, that would elegantly tie its various elements together: I remembered today what it was -- the song "I'm With You" by Avril Lavigne. Pure pop gold! I only heard it because my daughter liked it (she was 11 years old at the time) and I loved it immediately. If you don't know it, check it out here (good video, too). "I don't know who you are, but I -- I'm with you..."
* That DiFranco video has since disappeared, but if you don't know the song you can hear the (inferior) album version here, or watch a video of another excellent song from the same show here. This one is pretty good, too.