Personal Essays

Binge Listening: the Art of Consumption

Find a new band, listen to the single, expand to a few more songs, then a whole album, then all the albums, and finally, months later, you’ve exhausted their entire catalog—and listened to nothing else in between. Now: Repeat.

“This is the best band. Just the best one. The Brian Jonestown Massacre. And I have no idea what this song is called. But it’s completely amazing. Get any of their records. You can’t go wrong…They have some of the best records ever made. Ever.

That’s Courtney Taylor from the Dandy Warhols, introducing his cover of a song called “Stars” written by BJM. The performance is nothing to write home about, but I credit the preceding encomium for turning me on to BJM, whom I’ve been listening to pretty much nonstop for the past three months. “Listening” is maybe the wrong word. “Guzzling” would be more accurate. It’s like an addiction. The more I hear, the greater my craving, and this keeps going until it seems the only way to satiate myself would be to funnel the songs into my skull two or three at a time. I listen to everything they’ve ever written, and then I go searching online for live tracks.

There’s a name for this. It’s called binge listening, or at least that’s what I’ve been calling it since I first noticed the phenomenon, scrolling through my iTunes. When all the songs are organized by the date they were added, it becomes a bit like reading wood rings: layers and layers of listening history going back months, years. Conspicuous among these layers are big chunks of songs, all by the same band—Radiohead, the Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin—concrete evidence of binge listening.

When you start feeling peckish, another album is out there waiting for you. Except when it’s not, and that’s when you start searching for the live tracks. When you’re bingeing you don’t just listen. You absorb. You become saturated. The sound of the band becomes your sound; their ethos becomes your ethos. When you walk down the street, it’s their music that you hear in your head, even when you’re not wearing headphones. You begin to prize certain off-key moments in their songs, idiosyncratic chord changes, or fumbled lyrics. It is in this state of bingeing that you may actually consider buying a Led Zeppelin T-shirt—you, who’ve always hated T-shirts bearing brand names of any kind. And when you put the T-shirt on, you’re surprised by how right it feels, not because it expresses your claim on Led Zeppelin, but rather because it expresses their claim on you.

How does it start? Sometimes it’s just a catchy song that gets your attention. The problem is, the song is too catchy. If you listen to it too many times, it will start eating your brain, and so the only thing to do is to move on to a new song by the same band. The second song is enough like the first that you can still enjoy it, but without the brain-eating. In this way you move from one song to the next, and so end up devouring the entire album. When you start feeling peckish, another album by the artist is out there waiting for you. Except when it’s not, and that’s when you start searching for the live tracks.

But the hook can just as easily be emotional, or even visual. My Galaxie 500 binge began with a white shirt Dean Wareham was wearing at a Luna concert at the Fillmore in 1998. There was something about the luminousness of the shirt, and the way it bled into the opening chords of the first song, “Bewitched,” that completely captivated me. It may be that by the end of the concert I would have lost interest in the band—they’re not that interesting, after all—but as it happened a fuse blew at the venue and the show had to be cancelled before it had hardly begun. I went home with the image of that white shirt in my mind, and the first chords of “Bewitched” in my ears.

A week later, when I returned for the make-up show, Wareham was wearing a black shirt, but by that point I was already hooked. I bought all their albums, and then, still unsatisfied, began looking into Wareham’s previous work with Galaxie 500. Thus began the mother of all binges, and it probably would never have gotten off the ground if the power at the Fillmore hadn’t shorted out that night.

Two factors contribute to the success of any listening binge. First of all: music, and lots of it. Like a fully loaded jumbo jet, a binge needs fuel to make it go—I’d say at least four albums, plus some live material. This may be one reason, along with emotional tenderness, that teenagers are more susceptible to binge listening than adults: there’s simply a lot more material out there that they haven’t heard before.

Suddenly imperfections begin to appear—the fake British accent, for instance—and rather than intriguing me, they become increasingly hard to overlook. By the same token, it’s a sad fact that the older you are, the less likely it is that you’ll hit upon an untapped source of good fuel. I consider myself unusually blessed in somehow having reached the age of 30 before ever paying much attention to Led Zeppelin. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain such a delicious binge. Ditto Galaxie 500. The real piece of luck was Radiohead. Naturally I was aware of them, like everyone else, but, repelled by Thom Yorke’s whiny voice, I never listened to them. Until one summer day they clicked, and I disappeared inside a pair of headphones. When I next took them off, snow was falling.

The second thing is musical complexity. As a psychologist by the name of Daniel Berlyne once pointed out, back in the ‘70s, exposure to music (or any art form) tends to increase liking for that material, until overexposure drastically reduces appreciation, in an inverted-U shaped function. This makes intuitive sense, as does the corollary, which is that the more complex the music is, the longer it takes to become familiar with it. This explains the extreme brevity of my Donnas binge: about two days, with a U function pointy enough to draw blood. The pointier the U, the more disposable the music. Beethoven plotted might resemble rolling hills, with a vertiginous crag denoting the Ninth Symphony.

According to iTunes, the first song by BJM I ever heard is called “Wasting Away,” from Strung Out in Heaven. After listening to it again, I realize a few things are immediately apparent: It’s got a definite ‘60s sound to it, with tambourine percussion and a harmonica introducing the hook. Something about tambourines always invokes long-haired groupies and a stage crowded with players. And that’s the sense you get, listening: It’s a communal effort, with an emphasis on contributing to the music, rather than packaging it into a perfect 4/4 pop nugget. The sound bleeds, wanders, swims like streetlights on a drunk summer night. It’s this fuzzy complexity, I think now, that gives BJM such a respectable U function.

Alas, all binges must end at some point. I noticed this one beginning to wind down a few weeks ago, at a live show during which the creative force behind BJM, the unpredictable and word-slurring Anton Newcombe, heckled the audience for a full hour before deigning to play. The downward slope. Suddenly imperfections begin to appear—the fake British accent, for instance—and rather than intriguing me, they become increasingly hard to overlook.

Then one day I’m puttering around my apartment and part of a song comes to mind. Over and over someone in my head is singing, You look like David Bowie. You look like David Bowie. You look like David Bowie. I don’t know who it is or where I heard it or how the rest of the song goes, but for some reason it’s imperative that I hear it again.

Cranking up iTunes, I buckle in and play all I’ve got by Arcade Fire, certain they’re the source. But no. Two days go by while this meaningless phrase cycles through my brain. And then, almost by accident, I light upon it. It’s from “Lost and Found,” a song by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Alas, they only have one album out—a mere morsel in the eyes of a practiced binger. The sensible thing for me would be to turn them loose for another few years, until they’ve had a chance to fatten up their oeuvre. In the meantime, though, how do I get this damn song out of my head?