Thursday, August 14, 2008

iTunes & I

It hit me a short while ago that I'm not the same type of music consumer I was a couple of years ago. I used to listen to music by either popping a CD into my stereo or by placing a record onto my turntable. Now I more than likely turn my computer on, and often whilst doing something else, or several other things, I listen to my iTunes library. It's become so second nature to me now that I hadn't even realized how much dust my stereo was collecting. And there's something profoundly sad about all this for me. Am I losing the pleasure of actually listening to music as opposed to hearing it?

I suppose my dependence on iTunes came about when I moved to Ontario for grad school last year and decided to forgo bringing a stereo and my hundreds of CDs with me (it was both impractical and risky - I treat my CDs and records like babies). In my tiny bedroom in a rather decrepit living situation, I turned up my computer's volume as high as it would go and used music as my usual remedy for the dismal world around me. On one notable occasion, I blasted The Clash's Sandinista from my bedroom in the morning so that my roommates wouldn't have the luxury of a lie in after keeping me up all night with their running about and laughing. No, computer speakers are no match for a proper stereo, and no, MP3 files are not up to the standard of proper recordings. But despite these drawbacks, I still enjoyed my music collection, which continued to expand unchecked by my limited finances (there was a fairly decent used CD shop a twenty-minute walk from my apartment). Rather than dropping my new purchases into a stereo, I ripped them to my increasingly gargantuan iTunes library and they joined my regular line-up (whatever that can entail when your line-up consists of over 5000 songs). Occasionally, I tried to have my first listen of full albums through my headphones on a Discman, so obviously I subconsciously believed there to be a difference between listening via iTunes and listening to the disc itself, independent of any other music or distractions.

I can't say that iTunes has made my desire for tangible music wane at all, mind. As I stated earlier, I still buy as many CDs as I used to, and if I had a proper job and more money, I would be buying a lot of vinyl, too. I've probably said it before, but I love looking at music as a package that includes liner notes with images and/or lyrics, and I also like to think that albums should be whole works of art, not piecemeal digital files. And one of my main criticisms of certain bands is the lack of a coherent vision in creating a record, producing a few hit singles and filler. Having said that, iTunes has made listening to disparate music as interesting as consuming an album in its entirety - the shuffle function, whether on my iPod or my iTunes, can place seemingly unrelated songs together in a serendipitous fashion that makes me hear and understand these songs in a whole new way. Then again, it can also frustrate me when I'm in a particular mood for certain songs and others come up instead. I do love The Mighty Boosh's Cockney Nutjob, but it can be jarring in the midst of Joy Division and The Clash. I suppose that the shuffle function works as my own personal commercial-free radio station, where I can constantly be surprised by songs I hadn't listened to in awhile or songs I haven't had a chance to listen to much before. But this process of consuming music is obviously a very different experience from carefully selecting an album or a mix I had crafted earlier and listening to it from beginning to end with complete concentration. However, have I always listened intently to music, or have I used it as a soundtrack to other activities more than I like to think?

Music, for at least as early as my early teens, has been a constant in the background - I could never do homework in complete silence. I still remember working on quadratic functions or organic chemistry problems whilst singing along to Savage Garden (an embarrassing admission, but I feel as though I must confess this aspect of my early teens - my taste was nowhere near as discriminating as it became later in life, and as disturbing as it is to remember, I was told a couple of times that I sounded quite like Darren Hayes at the time...I guess Bowie's voice was too low for a fourteen-year-old girl to emulate). I think I found abstract problem-solving easier to do as I multi-tasked with singing, whereas subjects that required a coherent argument, like English or History, forced me to relegate music to the background. Until a truly singable song came on and I stopped for a moment. It's like my brain works best when it's firing on all possible synapses, including the ones that appreciate music. Music still stimulates and inspires me as I think and write, making me come to fascinating conclusions that I don't remember coming to later. So then, has my consumption behaviour really changed as much as I think it has?

(Takes a break to sing along with The Boy With The Thorn in His Side)

iTunes and MP3s have facilitated many of the activities related to listening to music, including the creation of mixes and playlists, the search for particular artists, albums or songs, and the ability to skip over tracks. Maybe I feel guilty over this ease and immediacy - I feel that I should be able to search my own brain for an appropriate song rather than type in a keyword or that I should be handling actual discs rather than easily flitting from track to track along with my fickle moods. My discs and records are like people to me (when I buy them from used CD shops, I feel like I'm rescuing neglected orphans and healing them by replacing cracked case covers), and when I don't take them out to listen on my stereo, I feel like I'm not giving them the attention and commitment they deserve. Also, in order to keep my computer from exploding, I don't store every song I have on it, which does mean I might miss out on some of the music I didn't choose to add to my digital library for who knows what reason. I then wonder, though, if perhaps my attention has become more fragmented over time because I just simply have too much music to listen to than I did when my musical scope was much more limited. Exacerbating this situation is that fact that MP3s are easy to amass and transport, which makes my collection spiral out of control. My music is becoming a landslide let alone my life. This issue worries me, though, because I know that some songs take time to grow on me, and if I don't make that extra time, I might miss out on something magical.

(Stops for some air guitar to The Skids' Charade)

I guess I miss that feeling of taking time to appreciate music the same way I would a good book or film. Why does the visual consume us while we have to make an effort to be completely immersed by the aural? I blame the Enlightenment. My best friend and I used to spend hours playing albums to each other and trading music via cassette tape, and later, via CD. Now that she no longer lives in the same country, we've done a bit of trading both online and through the post, but it doesn't have that same great feeling of sharing an experience. Whether it be rapt admiration or fits of laughter or actual discussion about why certain songs are good. Even when they might turn out to be not so good later in life. Part of my motive for this blog probably has its roots in the need to share music in some communal way and to take the time to listen once again. To listen closely.

(Drums and sings along to The Sound of Arrows' Danger!)

I realize this post has been convoluted with pretzel-like logic. I still think that iTunes and MP3s have changed the way I consume music, but I can't quite articulate the real difference between my earlier self and my present self. Maybe it's more about how I've always had two ways of consuming music, and that iTunes has served to make me more aware of that fact. But I don't want to slip so completely into my iTunes library never to recall alternate ways of how to love music. I should really take my vinyl copy of The Queen is Dead out and listen to it while lying on the floor like I used to a few years back. Maybe everything would make sense again.

From Blown Speakers - The New Pornographers

Turn It Up - Robots in Disguise


JC said...

"My best friend and I used to spend hours playing albums to each other and trading music via cassette tape, and later, via CD. Now that she no longer lives in the same country, we've done a bit of trading both online and through the post, but it doesn't have that same great feeling of sharing an experience"

One of many statements that I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement with.

Yet again you've got me thinking long and hard about things...the talent and ability you have for just nailing things in one go is astounding.

Your words and logic make perfect sense. The post is articulate, intelligent, witty, thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. It is not convuluted with pretzel-like logic (I'm not sure exactly what that means but it sounds as if you're being way too hard on yourself).

Have you been over to Song By Toad and read some of his recent thoughts on the state of music in the 21st Century?? I still reckon both of you ought to be writing about music professionally for a living....

Now there's something that I'd love to be part of. A session in a pub in Glasgow or Edinburgh with you and Matthew (aka Toad) talking long and hard about music, while the grumpy old professor (i.e. me) sighs and reminices about the days when it cost £3 with no booking fees to see The Jam or The Clash....and will take perverse pleasue in reminding you mere youngsters that he saw The Smiths play live on quite a few occasions.....

Hope all is well in my second favourite country on the planet.

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