6 Things I Learned When I Couldn’t Stop Listening to The Who


Once I was a misanthropic college student who was obsessed with The Who. Rather than narrowing my musical horizons, it wound up expanding my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time. Here are the six most valuable things I learned while indulging my musical fixation with “maximum R&B”: 
  1. How to have style. Poor college kids aren’t known for looking sharp, but poor English kids were. Mod style and ethos was something I took to quickly; it was simple and elegant. I found “mod” designers on eBay and in thrift stores and cobbled together a quasi-style of my own rather cheaply. 
  2. How to feel angry. It was amusing to me that The Who were considered a “guy’s band” because the way they raged felt so feminine to me. I never quite thought it was okay to be angry about things that I should have been angry about (parents’ divorce, friends’ betrayals, the usual young adult stuff); I put on a very brave face, as did so many of the Who songs I listened to. Yes, there was lots of excellent, mopey grunge rock still around at the time, but it didn’t get to me the way Pete Townshend’s stuff did. The Who’s music expressed an eloquent and sensitive anger, and the volume at which it was best delivered gave them a voice to their own rage that I wished I had and, eventually, got the courage to have. 
  3. How to have an adventure. I took all the money I’d saved over the winter of 2000 and spent it on a 3,000-mile road trip to see The Who in concert, dragging along three friends who couldn’t care less. Crazy! We did more fun things, heard more incredible music, and made more memories than we would have if we’d stayed in our little Southern town all summer long. Going to see The Who at all meant driving at least 350 miles in any direction, and so I did just that—many times. I met people from all over the world who I still call friends to this day. I even married one of them. 
  4. That famous people are just people. I didn’t anticipate making a career out of talking to rock stars. If you’d told me in 1999 that that’s what I’d be doing less than six years later, I would have probably thrown up with fear. Fortunately for me, Pete Townshend was the first rock star I ever met and he was incredibly kind and down to earth. And he had a stain on his shirt. 
  5. That there is so much great music out there. At the same time I was almost exclusively listening to The Who, I was a college radio DJ—another thing I would never have done if I hadn’t felt compelled to share obscure Pete Townshend solo tracks with the “world”. In the process of becoming a DJ, however, I was exposed to an abundance of excellent independent music that I may have never discovered on my own. Rufus Wainwright, Elliott Smith, The Roots, Nick Drake, Love, The Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, Sloan, Tortoise, Dolly Parton, Belle & Sebastian, Sigur Rós, Lucinda Williams—you have The Who to thank for me getting to know your music. 
  6. How to be serious about not taking things too seriously. There have been few times in my life when I’ve laughed as much and as hard as when I watched The Kids Are Alright (for the first time, mind you) with a close friend who hated The Who. Fangirls/fanboys might be horrified to hear about something like this, but I have never been so delighted laughing at myself as I was on that day. Why? Because obsession offers a tantalizing illusion. It’s so tantalizing, in fact, that it’s easy to miss more important things in life. Loving The Who as much as I did taught me to love being disillusioned, and to remember to have fun with what was so meaningful to me. Laughing at how much I loved The Who taught me not to sweat the small stuff. Music is terribly important, I realize, but what really matters is all that matters; everything else is worth a chuckle to keep from taking it all too seriously. And that, dear readers, is no joke. 

Jennifer Carney is a music writer based in San Diego. She’s probably not going to see The Who in concert next week, and she hates how many bad TV shows use their music, but every once in a while she drives up the coast listening to “Love Reign O’er Me”.