The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Sick Sounds: Did COVID-19 Ruin Music's Healing Power?
Daniel Dylan Wray , December 15th, 2020 10:04

The endless stress of COVID-19 and claustrophobia of lockdown has had a huge impact on our personal relationships with music, argues Daniel Dylan Wray

Music as a healing power might be a cliché, but it's one that also happens to be true. For obsessives and dabblers alike, it is a go-to in times of turmoil, despair and confusion. Having a deep-rooted love of music in the back pocket is to be able to pluck out something capable of soothing broken hearts, tortured minds or restless souls. It is an infinite source of reliability, profundity and surprise. An anchor on command.

Turning to music will no doubt have helped many of you get through 2020 and all that COVID has thrown at us. Maybe it's finally been time to crack that insurmountable Jandek or Sun Ra back catalogue or you've found more time to explore new terrain, with days spent in the company of humming speakers due to the absence of friends. I sincerely hope this has been the case for you.

However, I've had a strangely disconnected year from music. The one thing I have turned to over and over again for solace, comfort, unpredictability and mind-frying innovation has often felt impenetrable. Some days I'd play music constantly – I generally try to get through about five new albums a day – but it was as though a mysterious barrier had suddenly appeared. It was a ceaseless, almost irritating, blur that I couldn’t navigate through or digest. Some albums, no matter if serene or batshit intense, felt like trying to force down a mountainous Sunday dinner after 48 hours on the whizz.

Some days an album would end and all of a sudden I'd come around from a fugue state, realising I'd been sat in silence for hours, not even thinking to put more music on. It was a perturbing and unfamiliar sensation. It felt like music stopped working for me, as though the part of my brain that usually leapt to attention upon its arrival was wading and slowly sinking in tar. The one thing in my life always capable of cutting through the noise and mayhem of the world and delivering me to another place altogether, was all of a sudden adding to the noise. Pressing play sometimes felt like opening up Twitter – unleashing an uncontrollable wave of chaos and screeching – and I felt the need to retreat.

This wasn't always the case, of course. I still fell in love with countless records: the Ballardian disco of Róisín Murphy, the avant-jazz groove of the Necks, Anz's outrageous beats, Working Men's Club's Calder Valley synth-pop, the ethio-jazz meets pastoral folk of Alabaster DePlume, the pummelling charge of Special Interest etc. As ever, compiling my end of year lists for publications was as tricky as ever when whittling down 20 from what could have easily been 100. Likewise, old favourites still did their job. The sound of Bill Callahan's rich croon or Grouper's ghostly howl floating from the speakers over the spit and crackle of making breakfast eggs on the weekend was still as enriching as ever.

I still had beautiful and revelatory musical moments during 2020 – Luke Unabomber's Instagram and Worldwide FM radio shows being a regular source – but I also went through periods where the whole thing felt like a slog and that I was fundamentally out of sync with something I'd spent my entire life harmoniously intertwined with. Music felt draped in sadness, as though even that once inviolable beast had managed to be tainted and spoiled by 2020 too.

However, I think this was hugely exacerbated, if not outright caused, by the reduction of experiences relating to music. In any given year the process for discovering new music is vast: from DJ sets, support bands, a playlist in a bar, taking a punt on someone at a festival, recommendations down the pub etc. Likewise, the places where one hears and experiences that new music would be many: in the smoky haze of a club, in shitty DIY venues, grand theatres, on a long train journey, an airport waiting lounge, in different cities and in different countries.

The process of discovering and experiencing music is intrinsically linked to a sense of place. We all have indelible memories – from the profound to the prosaic – attached to where we were during a musical epiphany or awakening. This year that process has been hacked down to nothing more than sitting in front of a computer screen at home. Reducing it to an utterly interchangeable and homogenised experience with everything else we do sat at home in front of a computer screen: emails, admin, meetings, online banking, Zoom quizzes, shopping etc. Music is a multi-sensory experience, from the sweat and pulse of a club to the stench of stagnant gig venue carpets, and from rifling through fusty charity shop records to perfectly programmed light shows that dazzle the eye as music tickles the ear and chugging smoke machines engulf you. 2020 has robbed music of these other senses.

Huge love and respect goes to all the artists, promoters and festivals that made the best of a bad situation and put on streaming events throughout the year but the idea of watering even more of my music-related experiences down to further screen time added to a mushrooming sense of ennui. I need music to function as an antidote to screen fatigue, not a contributor.

However, for all the malaise and accumulative fatigue that 2020 contributed and how that sadly slipped into my relationship with music, there were some positives to pluck from it. I bought more records than in the last few years because the sensation of something arriving in the post, and having music to actually engage with in some tactile and tangible capacity, felt more important and needed than ever. I also really connected with Bandcamp and its fee-waiving monthly Fridays were an opportunity to sling some much-needed dosh directly to artists.

Plus, those times where a forced silence filled my days – rather than the usual stream of beats, riffs, clicks, bleeps, melodies and choruses – created room for contemplative thinking, or just not thinking at all. The latter of which sometimes felt like the most important release of all, especially in a year where it felt impossible, irresponsible even, to switch off.

This sense of letting go and embracing the disconnect, and subsequent void, allowed a gentle reset to take place. Initially, guilt had crept over me that I wasn't engaging with culture on a meaningful enough level – for both my work and for my own needs – but I began to relinquish that and embrace the fracture that had taken shape. There was a peace derived from taking a break, knowing that it was simply hitting pause rather than stop. I'd try to read meaty fiction and have to go over the same pages again and again as I zoned out, so I stuck to stuff that worked - magazine articles, music books, longform journalism. The 15 hour boxset of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz that I bought for lockdown remains in cellophane but I greedily wolfed down shows about baking, middle aged men fishing and yet another re-watch of Seinfeld and The Sopranos.

The more I stopped forcing myself to gorge on new music and culture because that's what I normally do and it's expected of me, the more space it allowed for natural curiosity and an insatiable hunger to creep back in. I guess I needed to step back and tune out for a while in order to tune back in. So, if anyone else has had a strange, strained and discombobulated relationship with one of the things you hold most dear to you during this tumultuous turd of a year then fret not, you’re not alone.