Campus News

Coviello Explores Adolescence, Pop Music, and Utopia

Story posted February 13, 2003

What song from your adolescence have you listened to over and over and over and over, maybe hundreds or thousands of times? Have you ever been killing time during a long airline flight, and found yourself tearing up when a certain song starts playing on your CD?

That's happened to Assistant Professor of English Peter Coviello, and the experience has led him to explore adolescence and the meaning of music. Coviello discussed his research at a recent Faculty Seminar in a talk titled "Vernacular Utopias: Pop Music and American Adolescence."

"Nothing is harder in the world to write about than music," Coviello admitted. "It's easier to write about love, about color. I always do it badly."

One challenge is in trying to explain the way a favorite tune makes you feel, without making it come off as mere yearning to go back to your younger days. Another is in finding out why we remain so connected to things from our adolescence.

Coviello asked, "Why do we love the things we love..., and how and why do we attach ourselves so passionately to things that may someday become thought of as trivial?"

Things like pop music.

When we hear a favorite old pop tune, we react the way we do because we're recollecting a time when "something happened," he said. The thing that happened was adolescence. But the feelings that well up in us are not those of nostalgia for those bygone days, Coviello pointed out. Instead, the music brings us back to a kind of utopia, where we are newly (or once again) aware of all of life's possibilities.

Coviello read an excerpt from John O'Hara's "Imagine Kissing Pete" (from Collected Stories) to illustrate:

After I became reconciled to middle age and the quieter life I made another discovery: that the sweetness of my early youth was a persistent and enduring thing, so long as I kept it at the distance of years. Moments would come back to me, of love and excitement and music and laughter, that filled me as they had thirty years earlier. It was not nostalgia, which only means homesickness, nor was it a wish to be living that excitement again. It was a splendid contentment with the knowledge that once I had felt those things so deeply and well that the throbbing urging of George Gershwin's “Do It Again” could evoke the original sensation and the pictures that went with it....

What is music doing in the O'Hara quote, asked Coviello? "What does music offer to adolescence?"

It makes promises to us, he concludes, and "we believe them."

So we listen to songs over and over hundreds of times, as if the words and music contain "encoded secrets to happiness."

But adolescence, Coviello said, brings with it a two-part revelation about the promises of love and desire.

First, it is revealed to you that people not in your family can love you, in a different way, even though they don't have to. Second, it is revealed to you that "most all [of those people] are booked.... Adolescence promises something categorically different, and you can't have it."

But music has a utopian appeal. We're drawn to the promises in music, and the music lives up to our expectations. A quote from John Darnielle's Last Plane to Jakarta #6 makes the point:

I understand that a man in your position has but little time to expend on stories of how young men waste such time as will never, never come again; yet bear with me a moment longer, for I am not the madman you suppose. I am only that into which my rude elements have been shaped by the music I have heard all my life. Somewhere in the middle of high school, it dawned on me that AC/DC wasn't just campy-good, as my theater-department friends and I liked to suppose, but genuinely great; I came around to the painfully obvious conclusion that "Back in Black" was great by anybody's yardstick, and that anybody who didn't think so was a pompous ass. It was a liberating moment. I went to see AC/DC at the same venue where I'd seen Heart years before...and they blasted Inglewood into the middle of next week. Once a young man has understood that great rock and roll must in some sense be savage to be any good at all, it isn't long until the desire to be in the permanent grip of that savagery pursues him night and day, and so it was with me.

"That's the utopianism of pop music," concluded Coviello. "Possibility and fulfillment. Here's a place where you CAN have everything. You can even re-experience falling in love again, and again, and again...."

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