It’s a clear scientific fact backed up by volumes of anecdotal stories that most people’s taste in music tends to solidify in their teens and harden entirely by the time they’re thirty, until you’re spending the rest of your life listening to nothing but the same ten songs you were listening to in high school. I think this is interesting because, if anything, I’m really starting to hit my stride when it comes to exploring new music. At the moment I’ve started listening to the kind of pop and rap I would have gritted my teeth through in high school – not necessarily enjoying it, let alone working it into my regular playlist, but finding value in it and even sometimes working it into my regular playlist. This comes after exploring Nineties rap, 00’s pop, twentieth century classical music, heavy metal, Seventies and Eighties New Wave, Nineties alternative rock, and of course the Sixties rock’n’roll I love so deeply. I’m not saying this because I pretend to be an expert, and in fact quite the opposite – writing all that out has reignited my thirst to more thoroughly map those genres because I realise how little I know.
I think most people use art to numb themselves. I say that without judgement because that is one of the things I use art for too – people tend to watch old TV shows as a way of dealing with stress and anxiety because the loop of predictability makes them feel safer, and I have certainly relied on old playlists and old favourite TV episodes to get through my free time on a crappy work day. But for me, art has also always served a slightly higher purpose – a spiritual communion that let me understand both myself and other people. For good or ill, I either see myself or I see someone I know. This has tended to lead me to try art outside what I might expect I like, like that dog-ass-looking show about corrupt LA cops. Most people find this kind of thing exhausting; more than one person has asked if I ever just sit down and watch something (no).
But in the past six years as I’ve climbed out of a lifelong depression, I’ve found another difference: I use art as a jumping-off point for new action. It started with my essays here, which themselves started as a vehicle for views I’d had about old faves – what I thought at first was a desperate attempt to be understood, which I came to realise was a desperate attempt to make myself understand, and which evolved into enjoying for its own sake. Over the course of 2022, I jumped into a second serious attempt in my life to pick up new artforms – writing stories more prolifically, drawing comics, playing music, and of course my sudden and overwhelming pleasure in running D&D games (which, incredibly, combines several of these disciplines – at least the way I do it). Part of the reason I have embraced all these things with such enthusiasm is because I honed exactly what I do and do not enjoy about each of them through intense study in my essays; part of it is that I picked up such confidence learning how to write essays that I a) am comfortable being bad at something because my identity is already secured by being good at one thing to my satisfaction and b) can see how I picked confidence and the long game I’m having to play churning out this ‘early’ crap.
But most of it comes from recognising that I’ve hit the limit of what an essay can and cannot do for me. There’s a common observation (maybe not quite cliche) that a lot of current criticism tries to shoehorn a currently airing show into a current hot issue; ‘what Rick & Morty says about Elon Musk’, that kind of thing. I find this a funny and satisfying complaint, because it’s exactly what I do, I’m just not a dumbass about it. I try and find some universal and relatable truth underpinning a work and then use concrete examples to articulate that idea. That is to say, I use essays to engage in philosophy – I use pop culture you and I would both be familiar with in order to understand the fundamental values that drive me. Two things have become clear about this: I don’t generally find it satisfying to make an essay do anything other than that (though I have occasionally gotten good results out of it), and I don’t generally find it satisfying to use other mediums for philosophy.
I really noticed it with drawing comics, where I found pumping my pettiest, most neurotic feelings into the format of a comic strip let me both process that negative feeling and generate a genuinely funny comic. Like, I’m not gonna pretend I’m making some all-timers here, but I genuinely recognise what I’m drawing as a joke in the spirit of my faves without replicating them too tightly. Thoughts too slight, stupid, and personal for an essay make a perfect setup for a bit of absurdity at the expense of a fictional character. This was after I really picked up that DMing is at its most fun creatively when I use it to just make up setting details and exposition; in any other medium, it would bog down pacing, but I’m simply throwing building blocks at the players to use as they see fit. I’ve been having fun toying with other things that other mediums are capable of.
The side effect is that I find myself soaking up new information with unrestrained glee. People my age often lament having lost the ability to read an entire book in one go like when they were kids, but I’ve been doing it quite frequently*. Reading history is pleasurable for its own sake, but it also feeds into setting details I can come up with; strangely enough, the trashiest scifi and fantasy trash does the same thing, presumably because it does in fiction what good history does with reality. Vivid images that articulate a broader system. I’ve gotten better about taking up movie recommendations (even recommendations simply made in passing).
*To the point that I’ve worked out I read about a hundred pages in an hour. Kneel before my mighty power and weep.
I suppose it’s that I no longer hold the world to an obligation. When you’re looking for anesthetic, anything short of total numbing will be a disappointment, and almost nothing is ever going to completely numb you. When you’re looking to fulfill a specific utility, you can have a similar problem; the flipside of filtering everything through my essays is that there are some things that I can’t get much out of and was obviously never going to, except in the much broader context. When you’re looking to fulfill curiosity, on the other hand, and specifically a curiosity without judgement or expectation, you’re generally open to any experience.