04 August 2008

"Everybody's talking...and I can't hear a word they're saying"

My musical absorption has been off-key since I bought my first iPod in 2006.
It was a tiny silver 2 GB Shuffle model, packaged very cleverly in a plastic box with instructions so simple that anyone with half a brain could figure out how to use it. I wondered at is sleek lines, its logically arrayed controls, and above all, the hours and hours of music I could store on it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Let me explain.
Musical technology has changed a lot over the years since I bought my first record album (“Thriller”) in 1984. While records were always around me growing up, I didn’t feel any true appreciation or ownership of an album until I received my first tape deck in 1987. The first album I ever bought was the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, and I can remember being very proud of having that off-white cassette with black writing on it. It was something cutting-edge, something I could take around as a badge of coolness. I used cassettes for the next eight years, learning how to dub and do my own remixes of songs using two different players. By the time I’d finally joined the CD revolution in 1994, I was at the height of my mixing powers.
CDs had been around for years, but for me, they took ownership to a new high. Not only did the album come with its own plastic case, it came with the promise that they shiny disk it contained would provide crystal-clear sound forever. The height of this “CD love” was reached in 1999, when a friend of mine tried to borrow my copy of New Order’s two-disc “Substance” set, and I was unable to part with it for more than 12 hours. The sad part was that I was utterly serious; I could not bear parting with something that had bored itself a tiny home deep within my soul. It wasn’t just New Order. I felt the same way about my Joy Division boxed set, and especially about my Germs “Complete Discography” album, which I loved so much I carried the booklet around and memorized.
I purchased my first digital album (two albums by the German electronic group And One) last year. I felt futuristic at the time, but upon reflection, the experience was lacking, and empty. Digital music is exactly that – it is digital, meaning there is no physical product to take home. There is no “thrill of the hunt” with iTunes. It’s not like hunting for a rare CD or vinyl album. If it exists, chances are that it can be had, which isn’t as great as it seems. If something is really rare, there is probably a reason for it (like there isn’t enough demand for it to actually be made on a mass scale; the “Terminator” soundtrack and TSOL’s “Beneath the Shadows” fit this scenario in my experience. Both were better in theory than in fact).
With iTunes and Internet music blogs, there is so much to listen to that I really doubt I am really hearing any of it. It strikes me as an endless all-you-can-eat buffet with multiple servings. By the end of the “obtaining” process, you are so gorged with food (or in this case, product) that you can’t remember if you were even hungry to begin with. For me, the temptation on my iPod to try to listen to everything at once is simply too great, and it is rare that I make it more than three songs into any particular album. Some days, it just seems there is too much to hear at once.
More than ever, portable music is the soundtrack to our lives. But is it a soundtrack, or a backdrop? Are we really listening to the sounds we hear?

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