Take a moment, dig deep inside and ask yourself: who are your favourite musical artists? Not that buzzy hot new release, or the names you like to drop socially, but your true musical soulmates and desert island discs? The audio comfort blanket you turn to in your darkest days, or the act you'd fly halfway across the world to hear?
I’d happily wager you first encountered this music in your teens, or your early 20s, at a push. The chances you discovered your most treasured tunes after the age of 30 are precisely zilch. Or so says a new study, anyhow, which claims to have identified the exact moment listeners stop embracing new music: 27 years and 11 months. After that, our ears apparently shrivel up and we turn inwards, condemned to an endless repetitive homage to our younger selves. The so-called onset of “musical paralysis” certainly goes a long way to explaining today’s lucrative gold rush of reformed nostalgia tours, anniversary reissues and tribute acts.
After interviewing 5,000 people on three continents, Deezer’s self-interested study concluded that two thirds (65 per cent) of respondents only listen to tracks they already know, highlighting an undeniable but uncomfortable truth: the music we grew up with shaped us and will stay with us forever, while seeking new sounds wields increasingly diminishing returns. With age, our palates grow ever-more finely tuned and harder to shock, while influencing social circles contract and free time to explore evaporates.
Music tied to memories
"I think that fundamentally, people are far more open and artistically curious than they are often given credit for," says Bill Bragin, who has arguably done more than anybody to introduce the UAE to brave new sounds as the executive artistic director of The Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).
“That said, I do think that the music people generally go back to the most frequently is music that is tied to epiphany moments in their lives: first love. First heartbreak. First time you snuck out of the house to go to a concert without permission. First realisation that the world can be an unfair or unjust place. First realisation that you wanted to be an artist while your friends wanted to be lawyers and entrepreneurs.
“Because so many of these [events] first happen in one’s teens and early 20s, it makes sense to me that the music you were listening to at these most emotionally full moments of burgeoning adulthood [stays with you].”
An uncanny ability to evoke a forgotten time or place is just one of music’s mysterious powers – but this conjuring tenet is an increasing preoccupation of a backwards-facing entertainment industry eager to exploit affluent, ageing listeners’ taste for nostalgia.
Nowhere has that proved truer than in the UAE, which has welcomed festivals such as Mixtape Rewind and Remix 92, presenting tongue-in-cheek 1990s bumper bills – starring has-beens such as Peter Andre, 5ive, S Club 3 and Boyzlife – while bigger budgets have brought recent return visits from Backstreet Boys, Take That and Duran Duran.
Click to listen to a song by the Backstreet Boys from 1999:
With a ready-made audience clustered around tight age brackets, the emirate’s cosmopolitan expats have embraced music to forge generational bonds in place of cultural ones – and to evoke not just a time, but a place they are now far away from.
The UAE's taste for nostalgia
Tim Derry enjoys manipulating this emotional recall when he works behind the decks under his long-running DJ moniker, Tim Cheddar.
“The song acts as a time machine, instantly transporting [listeners] back to their youth or a particular moment in their lives,” says Derry, who currently hosts a weekly retro-themed club night Rewind, at The Penthouse at Five Palm Jumeirah Dubai. “Music is a powerful trigger for the brain, and all those memories come flooding back, including the embarrassing ones, unfortunately,” he says.
Tim Derry, under his DJ moniker Tim Cheddar, evokes nostalgia through his sets:
As his stage name suggests, Derry, former Sandance promoter and managing partner of Think Events, is among the emirates’ most flagrant nostalgia-exploiters, working behind the scenes on both The Irish Village’s Remix 92 and the Le Méridien Dubai’s Wow! That’s What I Call Brunch – a decadent daytime bash soundtracked by live acts including Atomic Kitten and Chesney “The One and Only” Hawkes.
“Often, you get more entertainment value from an older act, who may have had multiple hits as opposed to a cutting-edge act with only one or two big tracks,” he adds. “And if we look at the expat demographic of the UAE, there are a majority of 30 and 40-somethings here who want to be entertained.”
Click to listen to a song by Atomic Kitten from 2001:
The familiar over the foreign
Conversely, Bragin has spent his professional career battling against such conventions and comfort zones. Before bringing a brain-bending, genre-strafing and continent-hopping agenda to NYUAD, he directed public programming at New York’s leading Lincoln Centre and co-founded the city’s not-for-profit GlobalFest.
One key pillar of his approach is to minimise the barriers to entry – such as ticket prices and showtimes – to encourage unfamiliar audiences in. Bragin hails the advent of streaming as inspiring a significant listener evolution, removing prohibitive financial risk while readily available curated playlists introduce new sounds daily.
But streaming may also be partly to blame for the onset of listener fatigue – after the initial excitement at finding much of recorded music history just a click away, the unfathomable number of songs available through streaming services such as Spotify (35 million) and Deezer (53 million) can appear intimidating. The latter’s own research found that the most-cited (18 per cent) reason for giving up on new sounds was feeling “too overwhelmed” with the breadth of choice on offer. And far too often, clicking on a pre-curated playlist is the epitome of musical disengagement.
The question then, is why, with such a wealth of music so accessible for the first time, do so many so often opt for the familiar over the foreign? It’s an unshakeable affliction: despite listening to dozens of new releases and unheard albums every week, I know at times of heightened emotion – from personal trauma to needing a boost on the treadmill – there will always be a handful of familiar comfort blankets I turn to.
Evoking an emotional response
“I continually have musical epiphanies, but they tend not to be in the musical genres that I listened to the most when I was younger,” echoes Bragin. “It’s rare for a rock, soul, or hip-hop track to move me the same way that the records I connected with in my youth moved me. I still go back to the artists and records that comforted me, or excited me, or made me dance in my room, or helped me vent my anger – that played that role for me in high school and college.”
What sends us back to those records, then, is not just mere nostalgia, but a proven emotional reaction – a reliable existing framework of cause and effect. Like ordering from a familiar chain restaurant or rewatching a beloved movie, we enjoy the certainty of knowing exactly what we’re going to get.
Which, curiously, is the only benefit that first-time listeners can never enjoy. But that privilege doesn’t mean the rest of us should forfeit our willingness to be shocked and give up seeking new flavours and thrills altogether – and maybe, like Bragin, we will find them in unexpected places.
Because it is not just our tastes that evolve, but our musical needs – and mature artistic responses hold hidden nuance. Later in life, listeners may have greater means or patience to soak up a symphony, and conversely less curiosity or exhilaration at being crammed in a sweaty punk or hip-hop gig. Both experiences can be profound, but in deeply, non-hierarchical ways – and as vital as acknowledging our past, is glimpsing through the sepia, autumnal hue of nostalgia. You can always go back to those rose-tinted records at any time – as well as discovering a few million more in genres your younger self would never have considered. That’s not paralysis – it’s progress.