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I suffer from a really crippling case of, well… feeling old. I know I’m not, but when I constantly compare myself to who I was or who my friends were ten or fifteen years ago, it’s really easy for this debilitating feeling to take hold of me and keep me from enjoying the here and now. Not that there’s anything wrong with nostalgia, which we all indulge in, either alone or communally. But I find myself reminiscing about the past to a seriously damaging degree. I know that the world wasn’t necessarily a better place when I was fifteen years old, but my selective memory of it sure makes it seem that way. I think every one of us is susceptible to falling in to these thought patterns as we get older; the wiser and more mature you are, the more you’re likely to recognize this habit for what it is and avoid the pitfalls of dwelling in it for long. For the rest of us, it’s only a matter of time before we start bitching about how much better everything used to be and how today’s kids just ruin everything.
I catch myself ruminating over this kind of stuff every day and I’m trying as best as I can to break myself of the habit. Culture (pop, youth, Internet, etc.) has always been changing at an exponentially fast rate, and it’s unrealistic (and narcissistic) to expect the world to freeze itself in time for you so you can be seventeen forever. None of this is a great concern for people who’re comfortable in their own skin and at ease with the simple matter of living life and pursing whatever interest sparks their passion. For the rest of us, though, the inevitable march of time and the changes it brings to the world around us can feel like a great injustice that must be resisted or rejected at all costs. It’s a cruel but fitting irony that, for such people so concerned with clinging to the world of their youth and decrying the teens that grew up and eventually took their place (Get Off My Lawn syndrome?), these habits effectively brand them as “old” long before their peers who don’t give a shit grow a single grey hair.
Why am I meditating about this now? Two institutions that I’ll forever associate with my youth have gone belly-up in the past two weeks, which has made this a very nostalgic July. It’s been more than a month since the announcement that Chicago’s WKQX, the home of “Chicago’s Alternative” Q101, would be switching formats from modern rock to news (following a buyout from a group headed up by this pathetic scumbag). Q101’s ratings have been slipping over the years as rock continues to lose ground to pop and R&B as the youth music of choice, so the station’s fortunes hadn’t been positive for quite some time. And anyone who remembers listening to the station back in the early to mid-90s would be hard pressed to find much to enjoy about it in 2011 as it abandoned most of what made it interesting and cool back then, embracing instead some of the most painfully generic, macho, angry and bitter music of the last decade. I remember being young and discovering bands like Elastica, Lush, and The Chemical Brothers, all thanks to Q101. By the early 00’s, this brand of “alternative” was all but completely jettisoned in favor of a new crop of bands like Staind, Breaking Benjamin, Godsmack, Cold, Trapt, Hoobastank, and Disturbed. Kurt Cobain once said that the future of rock belonged to women. It might be for the best that he’d never find out how much of an angry sausage fest it would eventually turn out to be.
Even in its heyday, Q101 was far from perfect, and for every song they’d play from Bjork, Beck or The Breeders (or strange one-off hits that somehow slipped into the playlist a few times a year) there would be three or four tracks of generic modern rock shit. And this was before Limp Bizkit, Creed, or Kid Rock arrived in ’98/’99 and turned the station into a Woodstock ’99 celebration of aggro butt-rock and depressive self-loathing. But over the years, we learned to take the good with the bad, and felt a tiny sense of victory as bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, Modest Mouse, and Franz Ferdinand reclaimed the spirit of “alternative” and scored a few hits that are still rock radio staples today. All this was meaningless, of course, but in the age of Napster, iTunes, and Pandora, I think we all still wanted radio to matter. We grew up listening to it because it was all that we had, and if it stayed relevant, then we still had something in common with the kids of today.
And over the years, Q101 took a few risky stabs at staying relevant. Sunday evenings introduced the “Electronic Trip” back in 1997, where the station would air 2 hours of electronica. This was not to last, as the program was cancelled sometime in 1998 or 1999, but along the way it helped me to discover artists like DJ Shadow, Orbital, Photek, and countless other electronic acts I’d have had no access to in the pre-Napster world of the late 90s. A similar program focused on indie rock would appear in 2002 (2003?), only to fizzle out a year or so later. The most drastic change would come in 2005 when the station went “on shuffle,” breaking up their predictable playlist with more classic alternative hits. It was an immediately noticeable change that felt like a godsend in its first few months. Over time, “shuffle” grew less and less surprising, as nu metal and grunge slowly regained their chokehold on the station, and hits from Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Smiths were phased out in favor of bro-classics from Bob Marley and Sublime. Eventually, Q101 succumbed once again to a predictable, corporate-approved playlist that catered to the dumbest core of every possible demographic, which left the station in a pretty miserable state from at least 2008 until this summer. Plenty of listeners mourned the passing of the station. Just as many seemed to cheer its demise. Both groups could make a good case for their stance.
As much as I complained about the station over the past ten years, it was still a big part of the soundtrack to my youth. My friends and I would listen in the car, in the basement, in the backyard while jumping on their giant trampoline on hot summer days… a lot of these times were boring as hell, but I still idealize these memories to a ridiculous degree. On my own, though, I was busy getting in to lots of music that my friends didn’t know and didn’t care about. Sonic Youth, Pixies, drum and bass, musique concrete, jazz… there was no Internet to discover and sample music from. Instead, I would borrow books from the library — I checked out this one a few times — and interlibrary loan whatever I could. There were two good music stores in town that I spent most of my allowance and early paychecks at. There was also Borders, which I’ve posted about before and spent far too much time at for my own good.
The closing of one-third of the chain’s stores earlier this year attracted a great deal of attention from the media, bloggers, and readers everywhere. Based on everyone’s reactions, you’d have thought that the entire company was going out of business, when in fact most of their stores would remain open. I don’t remember anyone talking about these remaining stores or what the future might hold for them, so I just assumed that they would remain open for years to come. Surely the bleeding had stopped and the company could essentially start from scratch, right? Obviously, I was ignoring the dreadful debts that the company had rung up over the years, which could hardly be remedied by closing a few underperforming stores. Alas, all Borders stores will be closing within the next few weeks, putting another 11,000 Americans out of work.
Most shoppers who first visited Borders during the 90s remember it as a “real” bookstore, one that carried an astounding variety of books and hard-to-find titles. Their music selection was second-to-none, and I’m sure I’ve spent hundreds of dollars or more picking from it over the years. Hard-to-find magazines, manga, great DVDs… you could always find something new and interesting by just browsing. Some time over the past decade (especially the last 5-6 years), this was all RPL’ed to make room for toys, games, t-shirts, gift wrapping, knick knacks and all kinds of floor-filling ticky-tack garbage that management was intent on stocking instead of real books and media. Though the company was extremely late to the eReader game (introducing the Kobo over a year after Barnes & Noble began selling the Nook), the chain had dabbled in selling electronics and video games throughout the 00’s. Perhaps they thought they had to — and actually could — compete with Best Buy. Corporate’s stubborn reliance on pushing the “make” titles, instead of simply providing a wide selection and good customer service, certainly showed that they really thought they could beat Cosco at their own game. Obviously, these were foolish battles they never should have picked.
I bought a lot of books and CDs at Borders that are still very special to me, and I have a lot of good memories of just hanging out and browsing there. Back when the stores were actually open until 11:00 at night, I once drove through a snowstorm on my way home from work just to buy this CD! How crazy is that? Compare that to today, where I can step into a Borders and literally walk out empty-handed a half hour later, unable to find a single thing tempting enough to actually buy. So I’ve been unhappy with the chain for a long time now, but I never wanted them to go out of business. There was always hope that the recession would end, that the company would get its shit together, and that somehow everything would work itself out in a few years’ time to the point where shopping at Borders could once again be an enjoyable and unpredictable experience. But here we are, with stores packed in the early weeks of liquidation sales, foolish and greedy customers scooping up armloads of merchandise that they could have bought weeks earlier for cheaper with a coupon. By the end of the summer, dorky kids will have one less place to hang out, thousands of knowledgeable and helpful staff members will be out of work, and the CEO will surely be enjoying severance pay the likes of which an entire store of booksellers could never earn in a year.
So then, we’re living in a world where radio is a dead medium and brick and mortar bookstores no longer need to exist. I can’t help but feel troubled by this. Maybe a new rock station will appear on the Chicago dial, but will listeners bother to tune in? I think that once you’ve lost them, and lost them young, you’ve lost them for good. The same goes for bookstores. I know that no one under 20 buys CDs or DVDs anymore. Will they stop buying books, too? But… what if that’s okay? Is any of this inherently a bad thing? I can’t help but feel like it is. It’s just got to be! But is that just because I’m over 30 and scared of change? Do I only understand the world I grew up in, and fear the inevitable shift that’s been happening all along?
Sometimes I feel like everything that I do, everything that I am, is sort of fading away. Maybe this is just fine.