It is amazing how we can trace our development through our musical tastes and see how each phase of our life can be associated with a certain type of music and how this music then defines us in our memories, especially when we hear an old song. Each era has music that invokes a feeling, a sensation, but as individuals, each period of our lives has a “soundtrack” that embodies where we were physically and emotionally and developmentally at that point.
I was born in 1971 and entered adolescence in the 1980s, which was an exciting transitional moment in music. Each decade in the 20th century, it seems, was marked by significant musical developments. New genres were emerging with every musical generation (Eyerman & Jamison 12-13). From the fun-loving swing music of the 1920s to the thoughtful folk music and the jiving funk of the 1970s, American musicians persistently pushed the boundaries of conventional genres. American music in the twentieth century was characterized by the innovation of new rhythms and novel lyrical styles and themes. Music scholars and historians have observed how each decade’s dominant musical form either reflected or responded to the concerns that were prevalent in society at that particular moment (Eyerman & Jamison 12-13). For instance, from the 1940s and into the late 1970s, American music was deeply preoccupied by sociopolitical and cultural concerns that dominated the general public’s anxieties and shaped public conversation. From racism and the fight for civil rights to the indignation about seemingly endless Vietnam War, American music tended to be serious and reflective in its subject matter and style (Eyerman & Jamison 83).
By the 1980s, however, the mood of the country had taken a significant turn. As social concerns changed, music followed. The war was over, the economy was on the rebound, and Americans’ confidence in their government was stable. In the 1980s, musicians demonstrated a tendency to embrace energetic rhythms and a focus on the self rather than society (Eyerman & Jamison 23). Pop songs, characterized by their lyrical and, often, musical superficiality, gained a wide audience. At the same time, a revival of rock music was observed, but with a twist. At the far end of the rock spectrum, hard rock and heavy metal music were emerging, and these genres became wildly popular among teenagers, including myself. It was at this juncture that I remember my consciousness about music developing and at which I can begin to define relationships between my musical preferences and my developmental interests.
I recall that I was attracted, as a teenager, to the intensity of this music, which seemed to embody, above all, the musicians’ desire for open, and even aggressive, self-expression. In their themes, rock music and heavy metal songs were also pushing limits by challenging appropriate social norms. As an average teenager, struggling for what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described as the resolution of the developmental stage of identity versus role confusion (274), I suppose it was very normal for me to be attracted to this kind of music.
At the same time as I was busily struggling to define and assert my own unique identity, identifying with the angst and noise of hard rock music, I had not forgotten about the influences of other genres of music I had appreciated a bit earlier in my psychosocial development. During junior high school, I was in a gifted and talented enrichment class for music, and it was in this class that I gained an early appreciation of diverse musical genres. With each genre to which we were introduced, I could identify a personal affinity that allowed me to appreciate and enjoy the unique attributes of each style. I liked the experimentation and free-flowing, creative riffs of jazz music. I could sense, even at that age, that the relationships among jazz band members were based on mutual trust, a tolerance of ambiguity, and a willingness to explore the unknown together, and I found this idea incredibly exciting. Within the chaos of jazz, there was also a controlled quality, and though I do not think I was conscious of this fact at the time, I recognize now why jazz music appealed to me so strongly: through jazz, I sensed, even without being able to articulate this feeling, that it was possible to feel directionless but still feel purposeful. In retrospect, jazz was certainly an appropriate metaphor for the confusing feelings one experiences during adolescence.
Interestingly, as much as I felt an affinity for jazz music, I was equally attracted to the organized and controlled qualities of classical music. Classical music was as exciting as jazz, but for different reasons. Classical music always lacked the distraction of lyrics and was punctuated by occasional bursts of unrestrained creative enthusiasm that were eventually channeled back into a tame, manageable format. Classical music also required a sort of technical precision that jazz did not demand—at least not in the same way—and as a student who began to learn to play different instruments in the classical style during this stage in my development, I could sublimate some of my desires to organize my own impulses and anxieties by playing classical music, which was highly organized and orderly. I played French horn and trumpet, instruments that permit cross-over into other genres in a way that violins and stringed instruments, for example, cannot always achieve.
As I began to develop a more stable sense of self, I recognized that it was possible to accept and integrate various aspects of identity that perhaps seemed, at times, to be in contradiction with one another. For instance, I could be studious and intellectual as well as fun and socially interesting. The two states of being were not mutually exclusive, even if dominant social norms insisted that an individual could adopt one interest or another, but not both. In music, though, the evidence existed that harmony and dynamic tension could both produce an interesting and likeable piece that attracted an interested and loyal audience.