Close Listening: Paying a Different Attention to Music

My mom gave me my first record player when I was in college. I had been eyeing it for some time: a gray and navy Crosley suitcase player, one of the many that became popular at Urban Outfitters at the beginning of the new vinyl boom. I lived at home, commuting to the university I attended in Fort Worth, and I mainly listened to music through my iPod and headphones or in my car. I had never heard music on a record player, so I had no way of knowing if it sounded better, despite what vinyl purists might say. Record collectors talk a lot about the audio quality, but it was something else for me: I wanted to hold onto the physicality of music, to lose hours of the day sitting around and doing nothing but listening. 

It seems only natural that I moved “backwards” to vinyl instead of “forwards” to digital. When the world moved to streaming services, I was still collecting CDs, displaying them on my shelf and carefully reading through the lyric booklets, studying the artwork and credits. CDs were impractical: I bought them, burned the tracks to my hard drive, then transferred them to my iPod to listen. The process was worthwhile because it meant I could hold a physical copy in my hand, but CDs were becoming harder to find, taking up less shelf space in the stores near my parents’ suburban home. Vinyl was even less practical: you have to walk to the player and flip the disc midway through the album, and often you get a double vinyl that requires extra trips. But records were becoming more available, and the cover art enticed me.

With the record player came the first record, from my partner, Meg: Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. It was an album I had never heard, by an artist who would eventually connect me to a wider group of friends. But first, it tethered me to Meg. I kept it for three years after Meg and I broke up, until we found our way back to each other. 

***

My mom relegated her listening habits to the Oldies station in her Chevy Suburban, and my dad kept his stereo system in his office so that he could play it loud. Now I had my own speakers, a small suitcase-shaped box that carried out of my room and into the hallway.

There were no technical points of audio quality I could identify as better than my car speakers or my headphones, but the experience felt like an extension of my early listening habits. I spent my teen years laying on my bed or on the floor, listening to albums all the way through, no skips. I always believed—and still do—that an artist spent time carefully arranging their tracks, so I tried to honor that by hearing the album as they intended. With records, skipping songs is inadvisable, if not very difficult.

With my new record player, I continued to sit in my room and hear the album in full, but now I could fill the space and not just my ears. I felt grounded in the place where I lived, sitting at attention and participating in the physical practice of flipping the record to continue hearing what it had to tell me. 

I learned how to appreciate—and recognize—the sense of my body in a room flush with music. Maybe, in that way, it did sound better. But there was nothing particularly more authentic about this method of consumption. No matter how I partook, the point remained: I wanted to sit and hear the music without distraction, to listen closely.

When I moved out of my parent’s house in 2013 after finishing college, I brought my Crosley and the small amount of records I had accumulated to Dallas to begin teaching. That first year on my own, I once again remembered how important music was to me. Throughout college, because of shyness, I often struggled to make friends. I would later come to know this as social anxiety. When I joined a teaching program in the big city, I first bonded with people through music, and my broad approach to listening opened more doors for connection. 

Within a month, I was at a Beyoncé concert with three new friends. I talked about Kanye West with my soon-to-be roommate, and we later saw Lorde together. I found myself—with different people—seeing Bleachers, Kendrick Lamar, The Killers, and more. I was living away from my sister, my best concert partner, but we still made time and trips to see Kanye, Justin Timberlake, and Jay-Z. On the first birthday I spent with my new friends, Beyoncé released her self-titled visual album. For my party, we sat in my living room and watched it. I loved every minute. 

As a person who experiences great discomfort in the newness of meeting people, music provided a doorway for me to enter, and I had many such entry points. I did not—and still do not—take these openings lightly.

At the end of that year, I blogged about my favorite albums released in 2013. It was my first attempt at music criticism, which was really just me gushing over music I loved. Even as I worked toward becoming a serious music writer, I kept up with the blog, reflecting on the albums that saw me through a given season. 

When I read back through the entries, I see the person I was becoming. Moving out of my parents’ house made Lorde’s Pure Heroine, a record about growing up, particularly resonant, even if she was articulating her teenage years while I navigated my newly independent adulthood. In 2016, I left teaching to return to school, resulting in a difficult season of depression that made a number of albums from that year—including Solange’s A Seat at the Table and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million—stick to my ribs.

As music helped me to become myself as an individual, it also helped me to become myself in relation to others. Just as music helped me bridge my social anxiety to make friends in Dallas, my annual blog connected me to old friends, people I had lost touch with. At the end of 2020, after seven years of blogging about my favorite albums, I took the list offline, printing it and only sending my reflections to people who responded to my invitation for one. Thirty-five people asked for copies, and I reconnected with friends from high school, from college, and beyond. I shared my deepest reflections on music with them, and I heard what moved them in return.

I also recognized in this tradition that same focus I had learned in my childhood, another extension of my listening habits. Just as sitting still in my room and thumbing through lyric booklets was an experience in committed listening, so too was writing a few words about what a particular album meant to me. Ministers once taught me to pore over scriptures as a means of approaching a richer understanding of God. I translated this lesson to my readings of song lyrics, deepening my devotion to music through careful study, considering its echoes in my own life. Each year I reiterate my gratitude for music. Last year, that became more important than ever.

***

When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in my school closing, Meg and I found ourselves at home for many months. Her law school went online, and I began teaching virtually, so we had to make the best of our loft in order to stay safe and sane. We made a wish list of albums we didn’t own and ordered records from my favorite local store in Dallas. We listened to every record we have collected over the years, reminiscing on our particular memories associated with each. When I took a new role at my school over the summer, Meg—who bought me my first record almost a decade ago—gave me a new record player for the first time since I got my Crosley: a glossy white Rega Planar-1. We built a media cabinet with my dad to display the new player and store all of the records.

For me and Meg, the record player represents an opportunity for us to talk about meanings, to ground ourselves in our shared space, and to bring some joy to our difficult days. I practice a daily, conscious movement toward what the music demands of me: that I put down my phone, that I do not feed an algorithm, that I center myself in the room where I live with the person whom I love. I give my attention to the record spinning on the table, allowing the needle to deepen my attention while I listen with intent.

At the beginning of 2020, I read Jenny Odell’s timely book How to Do Nothing, where she writes of the attention economy, “Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.” Odell connects this loss of attention to larger issues in our political sphere, in that during an age when we should be embracing complexity, our lives are reduced—and we participate in reducing them—to a loss of communication, nuance, and community. In turn, people are “unable not only to rest but simply to see where they are.” 

Meditation on anything—be it music, literature, or film—has the potential to stand in opposition to this culture. By focusing our attention on the meanings of art in our lives, we can refuse the many distractions available to us, taking time to think slowly and deeply. 

As the pandemic raged, demands to continue being productive illuminated all the more their dehumanizing nature. While hundreds of thousands of people died, our nation returned to business as usual. My job as an educator in Texas meant going back to campus in July, as the number of cases and subsequent deaths spiked. Coming home and focusing on music helped me to recenter myself, to be in the room, in my body, okay.

From listening to music in my room, I learned a lot about myself and how I interact with people in the world. I now recognize a movement within myself, from the individual to the communal, a practice that requires daily recommitment to maintain. As I become more of myself through my attention to music, I become more comfortable with moving among others in the world, even if—right now—that just means sending my friends letters with my latest thoughts, or texting them about what we’re listening to now. 

When I drop the needle on the record player, I hear ways I might reconnect to the wider world, to drop a line to a friend and see how they’re making it through the days. In our interactions, the movement from the self toward others, I hear something that sounds like its own kind of music. It’s beginning to sound better than anything I’ve heard before.

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program. His essays and reviews appear in The Adroit Journal, New South Journal, No Contact Mag, and New Critique, among others.