Thursday, July 4, 2013

My Musical Exit Story

Lately I've been thinking about how my transition from a stalwart Mormon to an even more stalwart non-believer was mirrored by (or influenced by) my choices in music.  I feel like, just as so much of my life was a natural progression toward apostasy, so much of my music was a natural progression toward better stuff.  My exit story and my music history are intertwined tightly enough that you can't just tell one without telling some of the other.

So let's begin at the beginning.

When I was really little, my understanding of music was limited to church hymns (which I didn't much like as a child) and Disney songs.  The Little Mermaid was among my favorite movies.  On the rare occasion that my siblings and I put music on the stereo, the most popular choice was one of the Greatest Disney Songs compilations we had.  Thus, one of my favorite songs when I was little was "The Ugly Bug Ball."
When I got a little older, I became aware of my Dad's tendency to listen to things that were neither Disney tunes nor church hymns.  My dad listened to country western music.  Because I idolized my dad as a kid, I wanted to listen to what he listened to, because what he listened to obviously had to be the coolest thing ever.  He tried to be careful about what country music he exposed me to, because there's plenty of non-family-friendly country music out there.  Instead of the raunchy country and the trucks-beers-and-southern-pride country, he steered me toward the sentimental soft-rock country.  And despite my guilty appreciation for Shania Twain's "Man, I Feel Like A Woman," I gravitated toward that same, warm, maudlin, country-with-a-message stuff:
I considered Colin Raye my favorite musician for a while.  But now I was heading toward middle school and kids were getting meaner.  When people asked me what kind of music I listened to and I told them country,  I usually got made fun of--or at least looked down on.  I was desperate to find something that sounded less lame than country, but that was still enjoyable and Mormon-appropriate.  I remembered a Greatest Hits CD my dad had in his modest collection, and, since I liked it and it was more acceptable than country, I latched onto the Beach Boys:
I knew that modern music was bad and that I shouldn't listen to it, but since my dad listened to the Beach Boys this stuff had to be okay.  And I liked it.  But since all I had was the one CD, I decided to branch out a little bit.  So I listened to my local oldies station in the hopes of discovering music similar to the Beach Boys.  (For the record, I thought that the early stuff was the only stuff--I had no knowledge of their output after their surf-rock roots.)

As fate would have it, the oldies station failed only a couple of weeks after I started listening to it.  One day, when I tuned my radio to the usual station, it was suddenly classic rock.  I tried to find an oldies station to replace it, but, having no luck, I returned to the classic rock station.  I figured "classic rock" meant it was still old music, so it probably wasn't evil like the satanic metal music they make today.

To my surprise, I learned that classic rock was actually pretty freakin' awesome.  And there were so many artists.  I'd stumbled across a treasure trove of musical knowledge to unlock.  I listened ravenously for a while, and when that wasn't enough, I started using my parents' tape deck to record of the radio and make my own mixtapes so I didn't have to listen to the stuff I liked less.  I discovered Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, the Who, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, and countless others.  Not all of it was great, but enough of it was good enough to keep me hungrily interested.

I began looking up some of these bands on the internet to learn more about them.  I found a bunch of fan sites for my favorite band.  I used my parents' terrible internet connection to stream a Yahoo! Music radio station for my favorite band.  And, sometime around my freshman year of high school, I became aware of a new compilation CD of my favorite band.  And that's when I tagged along with my mom to Wal-Mart specifically so I could buy my very first compact disc:
As much as I liked Colin Raye and as much as I liked the Beach Boys, the Cars were my first musical love.  They were my own.  I didn't like them because my dad liked them.  I didn't decide to like them so I didn't get made fun of.  I liked them because I listened to them by happenstance and thoroughly enjoyed what I heard.  I don't listen to Colin Raye anymore.  I do occasionally listen to the Beach Boys, but usually their later, more mature stuff.  The Cars, however, are still among my favorites.  I made sure to see them live during their brief tour in 2011.  

I also like to think that the Cars were kind of a metaphor for how my life was at the time.  The Cars were once vital, chart-topping rock stars but were now "classic rock" and mostly unknown by my peers.  In fifth grade, I was having the time of my life.  But since then, my naivete had shrunk and my distaste for the people around me had grown.  By the time I became a Cars fan, I was a miserable loner, as unknown in my school as they were. My Mormonism had set me apart from my classmates and I'd shored up the wall myself.

In an effort to remain relevant and not be so out of touch with the other high school kids, I started switching my radio to modern Top 40 music when my classic rock station was on commercial.  One of the first current songs I remember hearing was the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love?"  I remember being surprised at the admirable sentiment in the song.  Encouraged by a song I didn't much like but that didn't seem evil, I listened some more.  And, eventually, I discovered Trapt:

I have a distinct memory of mentioning this song to one of my few friends as we were working on a 10th grade English project together.  He gave me kind of a weird look and said, "Wow, I'm surprised you liked that kind of music."

I replied, "Yeah, I kind of was, too."  I felt weird, like he'd just told me that I wasn't living up to my Mormon ideals by liking this song--even though I'm sure he didn't even mean to imply that.

This was my first experience with any music that can be considered "heavy" by modern standards.  It even has that little scream thing before the chorus.  Its lyrics are abrasive and confrontational and not conducive to the Spirit.  But I couldn't deny that it was catchy, energetic, melodic, and enjoyable.  Though I still considered The Cars to be my favorite band and though I still listened to a lot of classic rock, I started looking into some more modern rock bands.  I began listening (without the knowledge of my parents, mostly) to Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, Evanescence, and a few others.  And then I heard one song on the radio that made me an instant Breaking Benjamin fan:
I knew of the band because a friend gave me a couple songs ("So Cold" and "Polyamorous," I think), but this song was thirty-seven-and-a-half times better and I couldn't listen to it enough.  I think Breaking Benjamin is what finally, irrevocably converted me to heavier music.  After this, I began expending more energy toward finding newer, heavier music than toward exploring classic rock.  And it was around this time that my dad counselled me against listening to music that "excites" me (see 5. Driving Away the Spirit).  

Then I went off to BYU.  My RM my freshman year was a guitarist...and a John Petrucci fan.  And he is how I became introduced to Dream Theater, my gateway drug to progressive music.  I didn't take to Dream Theater as quickly as I did to The Cars, but once they clicked, they clicked in a big way.  As Breaking Benjamin was the heaviest music I'd enjoyed to date, Dream Theater struck me as kind of brutal, especially since "The Glass Prison" was one of the first songs of theirs that I heard:

I read up on the lyrics and managed to convince myself that this was not evil music because it was recounting the drummer's struggle to free himself from alcoholism.  It was heavy and "exciting," but it was a story of a triumphant struggle over sin.  Thus I rationalized my growing obsession with Dream Theater--which soon branched out into smaller obsessions with Queensryche, Symphony X, and a small power metal band named Thunderstone.  Dream Theater quickly became my new favorite, but I wanted more.

Fueled by my discovery of progressive music and spurred by my twelfth grade English teacher's frequent lectures on the nature of literature and art, I tried to explore as much music as I could, searching for art in music--searching for beautiful sounds that defied label or description, that connected with the emotional fibers of the listener and made philosophical statements instead of just money.  It was during this high-brow phase that I found Porcupine Tree.

I'd returned to BYU for my second year instead of going on a mission, and I was entering my almost two-year-period of doubt before I actually left the church.  I was confused and angry.  Dream Theater and the heavy metal helped me on the anger side, but I didn't have much music to match my confusion.  When I found Porcupine Tree, though, I was struck with the band's variety despite its nearly ever-present melancholy.  It was a melancholy that I felt I understood and could connect with.  When Fear of a Blank Planet came out, that album's depiction of a disconnect between father and son and its bleak atmosphere brought me to tears.  The album, despite its frequent criticism of a pill-popping, desensitized generation that I didn't consider myself a part of, had so many moments that felt like they'd been written specifically for me.

It's still my favorite album of all time.  It's a masterpiece.  Even though I'm in a much different emotional mindset these days, Fear of a Blank Planet still evokes that regretful sadness and still packs the same punch.  It's much more musically, lyrically and emotionally complex than Disney or Colin Raye--and it's also something I doubt I'd have ever listened to if I'd remained firm in the faith.

Shortly after I stopped attending church and told my parents I no longer believed, I met my girlfriend.  She helped me move out and move on with my life.  I told her once about how perfectly Porcupine Tree captured the way I felt about her impact on my life.  And because of that conversation, "The Rest Will Flow" has kind of become our song.
I've continued exploring music since then.  And I've discovered a broad variety of music over a broad variety of genres.  I've enjoyed ignoring the constraints I was taught as a child and finding beauty in unlikely places.  I think trading a lifetime of religious rigor for the freedom to enjoy countless musicians' creative and emotional expressions was a good choice.  I feel much more like a human being when I listen to Porcupine Tree than I do when I listen to "Praise to the Man" or "High on the Mountain Top."

So here's to good music.  And here's to ignoring the religion that taught us not to find it.


  1. I echo you on this musical progression.

    It's nice being able to listen to music simply because you like it, rather than feeling like music is supposed to have some higher purpose.

    1. And the inverse is also true--it's also nice not to listen to music simply because I don't like it. I'm not subjected to boring hymns every Sunday!

      It's kind of a luxurious feeling to choose your own music.