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Books How I stopped worrying and learned to love pop music: An excerpt from Anne T. Donahue’s Nobody Cares

When do musical tastes become a marker of personality – and when do we stop caring what, exactly, anyone else might think about that? In her new collection of essays, Nobody Cares, writer and frequent Globe and Mail contributor Anne T. Donahue explores this question and other modern cultural quandaries, all with an unbridled enthusiasm and a fearless wit. In this excerpt below, Donahue comes to grips with a particularly fraught existential crisis: how she learned to stop worrying and love One Direction.

Nobody Cares, by Anne T. Donahue.

Right now it’s three-quarters of the way through the year, and everybody who’s ever listened to Spotify is sharing their top listens and their favourite artists on Twitter and Instagram. Which, like, awesome, I guess? Some people earnestly love music the way I love back-to-back screenings of Clueless, and if that’s what brings you joy, I wish you well. But some people just want to show off the reasons we should consider them cool/edgy/indie/authentic. I was getting annoyed at the relentless posts about top bands and go-to songs, but I realized it was because it felt like being forced into a time machine to my own pretentious past.

Once upon a time, I used to care about music. And, I mean, I care about music a lot now, but as a teen – even as a 12-year-old – I cared about music to the point of embodying that infamous definition of fandom from Almost Famous. (“To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.”) I made Spice Girls scrapbooks. I learned, alone in my room, the choreography to *NSync’s Bye Bye Bye and tried to learn Spanish so I could sing along to Selena. And then I graduated to rock concerts when I realized music could also be used to (try to) make guys think I was finally cool enough to pursue.

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My first real concert was Silverchair, which makes me sound a million times cooler than I actually was. I was 17, it was 2003 and I went with a girl who was barely my friend and a guy who was a complete stranger to me but drove us downtown in his cramped, dingy Honda. The only shows I’d ever seen were local, bands fronted by dudes I knew from school, and I was nervous about everything from drunken strangers to the venue to somehow being stranded in Toronto to the music being way too loud and permanently damaging my hearing. And then the band went on, and I was changed forever. (Ever … ever … ever …)

To start, front man Daniel Johns was a total babe, so I found myself down the eventually very familiar path of falling head over heels for a guy in a band, failing to understand that charm and faux accessibility were part of the performance. But even at the back – the very, very back – of the sprawling albeit cramped Kool Haus (RIP), the music itself managed to trump the man in question. I heard some of my favorite songs played IRL, and even better than on the album. I bought a T-shirt, and I spent the following week listening to Silverchair’s complete discography on repeat while telling anyone who’d listen that they were totally my favorite band.

And for a while, they were. But as I got more and more into music, I began spending actual time trying to find new bands, new artists and shows to fill my nights. My relationship with music became less and less about the feelings a song gave me, and more and more about using it to make myself seem cool. Which, of course, is the least cool.

So, by my early-to-mid-20s, I was an absolute asshole. “You don’t know that band?!” became my nonchalant cooler-than-thou calling card. I’d attempt to mingle with musicians after a gig so I could tell everyone I knew that’s what I’d done. (My claim to fame? One time I “grabbed drinks” with a band from England. I drank a ginger ale and was home by midnight. But goddamn, I clung to that for months and believed in my heart I’d made all of them fall in love with me. Which I hadn’t.) As someone who’d never felt like she really fit in, I wanted to be in so much. When I became a music journalist, I figured that not only would I fit in, but I’d get to decide who else would.

The first two years I wrote about music, I couldn’t actually believe it was a job I got to have. I worked for $10/piece, for free, for CDs, and for books. I smothered myself in notes on who was up-and-coming, who was not, who was trying too hard and who “deserved” coverage. I anointed myself an expert (I wasn’t) who could and should make or break a particular act (woof) and became the worst version of myself because I was using culture as currency.

And, of course, I still didn’t feel like I fit in, and by 25, I was burnt out. After what felt like infinite shows, countless interviews and no offers to write the Canadian version of Almost Famous, I couldn’t find it in myself to care anymore. I was tired and unhappy and in debt and mentally unstable and drinking alone. I said goodbye to the music industry. That part of my life was over.

Years passed, I found some equilibrium, and by the time 2014 rolled around, I missed how much music used to mean to me. I discovered I could once again listen to the bands that had defined my late teens and 20s. They weren’t painful reminders of who I used to be, but the soundtrack to some of my life’s biggest moments. I began to care about new artists and artists who seemed like they were trying their best, and I stopped dismissing pop music as a guilty pleasure. Instead of using artists as barometers of cool, I began to see them for what they were: sources of joy, ways to connect, both reflections of our culture and a means of shaping it. And I finally saw music itself as a gateway to discussions about politics and social justice and gender and sexuality, among other things.

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We might all have our own tastes, but music should be something that unites people out of shared excitement, not out of insecure clique mentalities or holier-than-thou hierarchical nonsense. Music didn’t sign up for any of that. (And I’m sure it would very much like to be removed from that narrative.)

So, I’m trying to tune out my own cynicism as people I know revel in their favorites. I’m trying to remind myself they’re not always driven by self-aggrandizement, and that it’s possible to be enthusiastic in a public way without snobbery. For the first time in a very long time, writing about music makes me happy. I’m not a tastemaker (gross), I’m just writing about what I love: Drake and Harry Styles and Bieber’s latest haircut and *~what it all means~* for the industry. It makes me feel like a kid collecting Spice Girls stickers again.

I am always happiest when I love things. And when you begin to stop listening to pretentious blowhards, it’s amazing what you make room to care about. So say what you want – I can’t hear anyone over my Best of Britney Spears mix anyway.

Excerpted from Nobody Cares by Anne T. Donahue. © 2018 by Anne T. Donahue. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. ecwpress.com

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