Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Springsteen on the mind

The Amazon MP3 store recently had Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. among its sale albums.  I like Springsteen's music, but had very little of it in my collection (only Born to Run from a previous Amazon sale), so, given that Born in the U.S.A. is considered another classic album, I decided to grab it.

When I listened to it, something happened that I consider pretty remarkable.

Some background information is in order.  When I was a kid, my dad listened to a lot of Springsteen.  A lot.  Picture several CD towers full of Springsteen albums and concert bootlegs.  Apparently, I was into The Boss as a small child.  I've been told that I liked (as I called it) "Bruce music."  Somewhere around middle school, in what was undoubtedly typical preteen contrarianism, I decided that I didn't really care for Springsteen anymore.  As I matured through high school and college, my opinion swung back toward appreciation, but I didn't go out of my way to listen to much Springsteen.  When I pressed play on my iPod after downloading Born in the U.S.A., it had been many, many years since I last heard the album.

Before that first listen, if you had named any tune from the album besides the title track and asked me to hum it, I'm fairly certain that I would have been at a complete loss.  I had little to no conscious memory of any of the other songs.  Yet upon hearing the album, everything was instantly so familiar.  It was like I had never stopped listening to it over all those years.  I also found that I loved the album.  After a few listens, I'm tempted to consider it one of my favorite albums ever, something that would almost never happen so quickly with a new album.  But to my conscious mind, a few weeks ago, there was essentially no difference between Born in the U.S.A. and an entirely new album.

Think about that.  In my brain, there were neural circuits associated with the music of this album, and they had lain dormant for years upon years.  But there were powerful connections there, because a single listen to the album reactivated them so quickly and so strongly.  The same thing had not happened with Born to Run.  With that album, I knew the very famous title track well, but other than that, only a few bits and pieces rekindled vague memories; there was none of that intense feeling of familiarity.  And this makes a lot of sense - Born to Run was released almost eight years before I was born.  Born in the U.S.A. came out just before my first birthday, and considering my dad's fandom, it's quite possible that it's the album I was exposed to more than any other during my early childhood.  And early childhood is, of course, when the most rapid brain development occurs, when neural plasticity is at its highest.  I suspect that those dormant neural circuits I spoke of were already being formed when I was too young to have any conscious memories - much like how we begin to learn language before we are even a year old.

It makes sense, but it still blows me away.  Just the fact that there are parts of our brains storing specific pieces of music, and we can go years without accessing them, but they're still right there, waiting to be pulled up to conscious thought.  The human brain really is an amazing thing - I wouldn't hesitate to call it the most amazing thing in the known universe.  I'm also blown away by the power music can have over us.  Why did we evolve to be so affected by certain arrangements of sounds?

It's not surprising, really, that the me of today likes this album so much.  Some of my favorite music artists, like Arcade Fire and Pearl Jam, were strongly influenced by Springsteen.  And now, I can appreciate the lyrics in a way that would have been impossible for a child.  But at the same time, I have to guess that nostalgia plays an important role.  At times, when I'm listening to Born in the U.S.A., it seems like I can hear my dad singing along.  It's something I wouldn't have anticipated, and it's rather remarkable.

It's all so fascinating for me to think about, and I just had to get those thoughts out.  So there's my extremely nerdy exploration of the experience of hearing a great album for the first time in many years!

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