Fighting the false fierce urgency of “now”

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” — Jeff Goldblum as the charmingly blunt Ian Malcolm,  Jurassic Park

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Last month, Charlottetown’s Two Hours Traffic called it quits. There was no drama to speak of, just an acknowledgement that the guitar-pop band had run its course — and that, well, it just wasn’t successful enough for its members to justify devoting their lives to it. It’s not an uncommon story and, given that the band had a solid 12-year run, it shouldn’t really be that sad a story either.

I was at the band’s final Halifax show, assigned to review it for Exclaim! I expected to enjoy the concert, and I did: the band played great, the crowd was energetic and the setlist contained pretty much anything you’d have wanted to hear played. What I didn’t expect was that I’d still be thinking about the show a month later, and that I’d be listening to the band’s records — particularly its breakthrough, 2007’s Little Jabs — on near-constant rotation.

My review captures some of what I’m still feeling about the show: a sense of too-late rediscovery, a lingering sadness about lost possibility and, most importantly, some personal guilt that I hadn’t done more on my part to help this band get the attention it rightly deserved. Revisiting Little Jabs, and I have no qualms acknowledging it as easily one the best rock records to come out of Atlantic Canada in the past decade (maybe even the best). The hooks are incredible, the lyrics sharp and simple, and the melodies endlessly hummable. And while last year’s Foolish Blood isn’t quite at the same level, it’s not that far off, all things considered.

So where did Two Hours Traffic lose us? Was Little Jabs just too underrated? Maybe, but it was Polaris shortlisted and the band’s current fanbase was built on its strengths. Was it Territory, the good-but-not-as-great followup album? Maybe, but it’s really not enough of a quality drop to derail a career. Was it the lack of a hit single? Sure, that’s a contender, but that’s not always make-or-break for a band.

No, basically, we just lost interest in Two Hours Traffic. They were a really good band that ended up making a truly great album, and then proceeded to record a bunch of really good songs across two more pretty good albums. Put together, in a single show, the song catalogue floored me, but the band just wasn’t able to keep our interest over time.

We discovered Two Hours Traffic, and then tossed the band aside. And now, that’s our loss.

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When I started writing about music semi-professionally, my biggest concern was the degree to which I could be critical about bands that I enjoy. I was scared of over-valuing the familiar, ending up the type of writer who enjoys more of the same, or who perhaps gives too much benefit of the doubt to artists who’ve impressed me in the past. (I’ll leave it to you to judge whether that ended up the case.)

These days, though, I’m more concerned about the opposite: of over-valuing novelty, of prioritizing the thrill of discovery.

Back in December, I wrote about year-end lists, calling them into question by looking at how the Internet has seemingly ramped up the pace of music culture:

…the Internet has amplified and accelerated popular music’s hyper-commitment to now. The entire promise of pop is the now, after all: building a world in 3-4 minutes that comes down to one chord, one choice, one feeling right now in front of you. The Internet is the same way, just with different tools: breaking news, latest tweets, “most recent” Facebook posts. Current music culture and the Internet itself, intertwined, both value the hyper-present. This means a music culture based on an endless stream of now-ness

The Internet is one big “now” machine. It feeds us a never-ending present, full of alternate paths and possibilities to consider. In musical terms, this means there’s always another great record to devote your time to, another impressive song to sneak its way into your life, and services like Spotify and Rdio (not to mention YouTube) that make it easier to access that music than ever before. Today, thanks in no small part to Rdio, I listen to more records than at any other point in my life, but I worry about how few of them linger, how few of them burrow under my skin in the way that albums did when I was 20 or 25.

Some of this is on me. Understandably, we all hold tight to records from our formative years, and there’s no question that my tastes have taken a turn towards more immediate pop sensibilities in the past couple of years. But I also look back at the 2000s and see a landscape littered with “buzz bands” that the culture machine championed and quickly grew tired of. In some cases, these were bands that never quite followed up their great debut albums (Bloc Party, Interpol, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) with anything as compelling, living up to the old cliché about having your whole career to write your first record. In other cases, though, there are bands that embodied a moment in time and time moved on — say, for example, the Strokes.

But here’s the thing: increasingly, I find myself unconvinced these bands get that much objectively worse over the course of their careers. Instead, perhaps what’s lacking in those later records is the act of discovery, the kinetic thrill that comes from finding something new and exciting. There’s something incredibly powerful about coming across a great new band and getting to figure out how they might fit into your life, not unlike getting to know a new friend or sparking a new relationship. And, frankly, that’s not an Internet thing — it’s always been that way with music.

Now, though, that sentiment exists in a world where the possibility of discovery is everywhere, and where the potential of something else is endlessly accessible. And I worry that effect on our relationships with bands.

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Admittedly, I worry about its effect on our relationships more generally.

I spent my Sunday afternoon at Podcamp Halifax, my sixth year attending the annual event. The “unconference” is all about social media and Internet issues/topics, and while I originally started attending out of professional interest, now it’s more about the “camp” side of the equation for me: a fun day with people from Halifax that I know mostly from the Internet to talk about digital life (or, as it increasingly seems, simply “life.”)

Along those lines, the sessions I tend to enjoy aren’t the practical “how to do X in social media” but the ones that are more about Internet culture in general. My favourite was by Andrew Burke, a local developer and the mind behind the parody site “Starships Start Here,” a delightful spin on Nova Scotia’s famous shipbuilding  marketing campaign. Andrew, a most generous speaker, developed an app called “Remembary,” which combines diary writing with other forms of social media activity to create an ongoing journal. His presentation was about the implications of trying to document our lives for the long-term when everything about the Internet is so immediate.

It resonated with me because it got me thinking about my own biases towards novelty. Despite being a rather private person in many ways, in recent months I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that I’m predominantly an extrovert. I’m the person who almost always says “yes” when asked to hang out, simply because there’s more possibility at play — I know exactly what happens if I stick by myself, whereas I love the small surprises that come out in a shared adventure or conversation.

“There’s something happening somewhere,” a certain New Jersey icon once sang. The problem with social media is that it turns that “something” and “somewhere” into tangible, knowable things. Choosing to spend a night in means you get to see, in real time, what all your friends are up to. On a night out, you can check your phone and see how others are doing, from the better to the worse. You can keep tabs on old friends, ex-lovers and all sorts of others, weaving together alternate plots in your head. “The digital age is sparks of connection,” I (pretentiously) tweeted during the session, “constantly bouncing against our synapses, tickling our fingers to refresh one more time.”

Andrew’s point was that, in some ways, this can be deeply unsatisfying: not only do you run out of interactions when your feed is done, and feel the need to refresh until something new hits, but the entire experience places the opportunity costs of your choices right in front of you. It’s a false fierce urgency of “now”: you can’t really embrace all these possibilities, but you’re privy to them anyways, hundreds of little discoveries, each hinting at larger discoveries if you had the wherewithal to follow through with them. You see, in real time, small glimpses into what else you could be doing, or reading — or listening to.

You can’t do everything, be everywhere, or listen to all of the things. But sometimes, Internet life can make you feel like you should, and feel guilty when you don’t. So you try and keep up, keep pace, bounce from opportunity to opportunity… until you end up at your last Two Hours Traffic show and feel guilty about what got left behind in the name of discovery.

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