Back in the spring of 2000, I was one of millions of people suddenly captivated by a Volkswagen TV commercial that was clearly tailored to sentimental college kids, twee music fans, and girls with asymmetrical haircuts. It featured a sexy convertible full of sexy hipsters who arrive at a party of uncool fraternity types and decide that they'd rather keep driving around listening to rad music and being sexy and carefree.
John Roderick is the singer and songwriter responsible for Seattle's the Long Winters. His column appears on Reverb every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRoderick.
The commercial was like a short film, and it prominently featured the song "Pink Moon" by Nick Drake. It was innovative both because the music did the talking and because the song was both gorgeous and unknown. "Pink Moon" was the very definition of a lost classic. I had never heard of Nick Drake, despite having been a sentimental college kid myself, and despite having spent years playing music and socializing with record collectors and sad-eyed folk-music fans. It's an incredible claim, so I'll repeat it: I had never heard of Nick Drake.I'm sure he was appreciated by people at the time, even people I knew, but he'd never been mentioned to me by anyone in countless conversations about timeless music, and I'd never read about him or heard a note of any of his albums. The song "Pink Moon" was amazing to hear with fresh ears, and it performed exactly the role the advertisers hoped: I couldn't wait for that Volkswagen ad to come back on. It came up in conversation the next day: "Have you seen that Volkswagen ad?" It was a genuine phenomenon, and a month later I heard the song playing in every cafe and bar in town. By that summer, the album Pink Moon was everywhere. I remember seeing it in a record store in New York, with a huge sticker on the CD case that said "As heard on the Volkswagen commercial." Seriously.
Yet even though Nick Drake was the consummate forgotten artist, within weeks of his rediscovery I was reading articles in music magazines in which the authors suggested they'd known about him all along. The social revisionism had begun: "Oh yeah, Nick Drake, love him, love him, big fan. It's kind of disgusting that a Volkswagen ad made him so popular with sorority girls." This attitude was copped in almost every article I read about him--and there were dozens--all confirming that Pink Moon was one of the all-time greats and that everyone with any taste had known it all along. I was aghast.
Music writers are loath to admit that they discovered something only recently, because their culture puts a premium on being ahead of the curve, but in Nick Drake's case, the evidence was there for all to see. In the few weeks after the ad appeared, Nick Drake sold more albums than he had in 32 years. If all the music writers had known about him already, why for the love of God had they kept him a secret for so long?
This is what I call the Pink Moon Problem: No one wants to admit "Yeah, I've never heard of that band," as if not having heard of a band indicates that you are lazy and eat Play-Doh and hump tree roots. What is so terrible about admitting you've never heard of a band? Not having heard of a band is no cause for alarm. There are tens of thousands of bands! We all make snap judgments about what to listen to--we all choose not to listen to bands because they have a stupid name, or because the first 15 seconds of the first song on their first record isn't 15 seconds of pure joy, or because their singer writes a pompous column in a local weekly paper. And sometimes we make mistakes--we collectively ignore someone like Nick Drake for 30 years before discovering him thanks to a music supervisor who works for an ad agency. This is no cause for shame. Music is not ruined by other people liking it. Discovering things for the first time can still be the source of great pleasure, even when everyone else in the world has already heard it.
I remember the first time I heard Neutral Milk Hotel. My girlfriend in the late '90s was a big fan of what I called "the yowlers": yodeling rich kids like Cat Power and Will Oldham who pose like crazy backwoods savants and wear live raccoons on their heads in photo shoots. I thought the whole lot of them were fakers, so when she played me Neutral Milk Hotel I instantly dismissed them as more pseudo-crazy Southerners who sound like two cats in a wood-chipper. How do people fall for this crap?
But a year later I had fallen on hard times and was feeling low. I heard Neutral Milk Hotel quite randomly in these new and degraded circumstances, and the music made complete sense to me. I was mesmerized and destroyed by the same tunes I had cavalierly dismissed a year earlier. The band's biography, historical moment, press and peers, critical acclaim: None of these things had helped me hear the music. Only when my new context had stripped me of all my "knowing" was I able to hear it with innocent ears. Most of the music I love I've discovered this way, either through accident or by gradual awareness, completely unconcerned with whether a record is "new" or "now," admired or despised.
I try hard not to have the Pink Moon Problem. All anyone can do is listen with open ears and hope the right music reaches us when we're ready to hear it. When we're lucky enough to find something that excites us, we should proclaim it loudly: I'VE NEVER HEARD THIS BEFORE, AND IT'S AMAZING!