Dubstep in Vienna: Or, Craving Things That Don’t Exist

Reading time: 8-10 minutes, plus one short song.

A collection of musings around the topics of art, yearning, and synthesizers. 


How I learned to love music

Most people worry about the future. Some people worry about the past. I worry about alternate histories: things that never happened, but what if they had?

One of those what-ifs has been on my mind lately:

What if I’d been born early enough in history that I never got to hear electronic music?

* * * * *

I still remember the first time I knowingly heard a synthesizer. (Whatever electronic sound effects Britney Spears and Nelly were using had escaped my notice.)

I was 12, and riding in the car of my good friend Peter Andrews. His mother was driving, and we were listening to songs from the 1970s. Most of them were background noise, and held no interest for me.




I heard something totally outside my range of experience. Two minutes and thirty seconds of electronic heaven.

Then, gone, replaced by some guy with a guitar. I felt empty after it ended.

Peter’s mother told me what the song was called: “Popcorn”. My own mother, of the same vintage, remembered it well enough to buy me the full album by the artist who produced that one-hit wonder.

I listened to that CD at least 100 times over the next two years. I even remember the songs I skipped.

* * * * *

Eventually, my taste expanded. I found Tiesto, and the Chemical Brothers, and DJ Icey, and the Qemists.

Each of those artists has produced songs that give me the same feelings “Popcorn” did the first time around. I’ve heard bass drops that make me want to punch a hole in a brick wall (in a good way). I’ve heard drum ‘n bass tracks that make me want to get married. I also enjoy listening to rock, and jazz, and piano concertos, but they’ve never given me those chills. 

It sure is a good thing I wasn’t born in 18th-century Vienna, right?

* * * * *

Then again, I’m not so different from the people of 18th-century Vienna. My ears are made of the same cartilage, and filled with the same tiny hairs that let me appreciate sounds in the approximate range of 20 to 20,000 hertz. Had I been born in 18th-century Vienna, I’d probably have enjoyed Mozart and Salieri and/or 18th-century Austrian folk songs, depending on the habits of my social class.

Still, I can’t help but wonder: How many Viennese from that era grew up not really enjoying music? How many of them thought that operas and symphonies were sort of boring?

Would any of those people have liked dubstep?


Many good things do not exist yet

Long before Beethoven sat before a piano, someone with twice his musical talents was born into a world that lacked keyboards or orchestras.”

Kevin Kelly

The range of available music in our age is by far the highest in human history. And all music has fans. Classic rock, indie rock, dubstep, trance, hip-hop, jazz, opera, polka… some are less popular than others, but any could fill a concert hall of reasonable size in New York City under the right conditions.

In the future, people will invent new genres of music. Those genres will also have fans.

In fact, some people in the future will only like music that hasn’t been invented yet. Some people living now will like music that hasn’t been invented yet.

* * * * *

Maybe some kid in 18th-century Vienna, or Ming Dynasty China, or Egypt in the age of Ramses, would have been the greatest DJ of all time, had they been born in a different century. Instead, they learned to play the harp or the zither, and the only electronic music they heard was the rumble of thunder in distant storms.

I’m not sure whether I’d call that “sad”, since they never knew what they were missing. On the other hand, maybe they’d have been happier today. (Even controlling for indoor plumbing and so on.)

* * * * *

What pleasures do people today lack the capacity to imagine? We have science fiction, and we know something about the limits of physical science and human perception, so we can already dream of pleasures yet to be invented. But some activities of the future are likely as unavailable to our imagination as dubstep was to the ancient Egyptians.

Some people assume that the transfer of minds from brains to networks will allow for the next, and perhaps the last, major advance in sensory pleasure. And some people think that the discovery of this ultimate pleasure will plant the seed of humanity’s annihilation, as we drown in mindless joy and yield the universe to beings who are not quite so self-satisfied.

In other words, the things we crave that don’t exist might eventually kill us all.

(I don’t have any novel suggestions for solving this problem; plenty of people are tackling that challenge already. I just thought it was worth mentioning.)

(Also, it just struck me how strange it is that I first discovered the key futurist concept of wireheading as part of the Pendragon series.)


Craving without knowing

Like many people, I find the web serial Worm to be rather addictive. Now that I’ve read it (twice), I spend a lot of idle mental time thinking about certain scenes, or imagining new stories set in the same world.

At first, I thought this was just because it was a very good web serial. But now I wonder whether it satisfied a craving I hadn’t known I had. A craving for a specific kind of superhero story where the characters have genuine personalities and make decisions commensurate with their backgrounds and circumstances.

Had I been born in 17th-century Spain, perhaps I’d have read Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso and gotten small hints of this feeling. Maybe Orlando’s heroism would have stirred my soul to the same extent as Taylor Hebert’s. Or maybe I’d have felt a yearning for something greater.

* * * * *

I also wonder, on days when I’m in a mysterious funk that I can’t cure with music or fiction or meditation, whether I’m longing for something I can’t have, because it doesn’t exist.


* * * * *

You know that feeling, don’t you? When you hear a song or see the first few seconds of a movie and suddenly realize you’ve been waiting for this thing all your life?

Sometimes, you might have predicted the feeling beforehand—you want a film with a certain kind of character, or a book with a certain kind of story.

But sometimes, you had no idea what you were looking for, until you found it.

One way you could describe the goal of an entrepreneur, or the goal of any creative person: To help people find something they never knew they were looking for.

* * * * *

What things will Future You discover you’ve been craving all along?

What if you tried to find them now?


Supplementary Materials

A friend and I were eating dinner. She sat down with a plate of French fries. We discussed for a while what it might have been like to be the first Frenchman to consume a French fry, back before anyone called them French fries. And it made me think about the fact that, until the late 16th century, no European had ever eaten a potato.

Complete the sentence: “Until the late 21st century, no human had ever…”

 * * * * *

Related: Public health advocates describe some foods as “hyperpalatable”—engineered to appeal to our most basic food instincts, thanks to the magic of salt, sugar and fat. We never had Cheetos when we all lived on the African savannah, but once we’ve eaten them a few times, we’ll start to want them.

In other words, our bodies crave things that used to not exist.

 * * * * *

Some people simply don’t like music, despite liking other things as much as the rest of us.

I’d guess that most of these cases simply apply to all sound patterns and will never be “cured” by new kinds of music. But I’d be very curious to find a case of “specific musical anhedonia” whose cause turned out to be a longing for music that didn’t exist, and which disappeared when the patient first heard, say, Sleigh Bells.

* * * * *

Finally: I would pay money for a true story of someone born in the 19th century listening to and enjoying any form of electronic pop music. This would make me very happy.


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