Feb 21, 2005

iPod People

Andrew Sullivan has this dead-on, faintly chilling observation about our increasing social atomization (or, in his quaint British spelling, "atomisation").

I must note a corollary to the zombi-fication of street life inflicted by the iPod: The malaise of Shuffle. It's hard for me to admit this, because for years—and I can't imagine I'm alone in this—I yearned for exactly what the iPod and iTunes have delivered: complete random access to my entire music collection. As I watched friends buy bigger and bigger CD changers and dutifully load their collections into them, seldom if ever retrieving the discs and returning them to their cases, I thought: That's just an elaborate, inefficient form of data storage. What if we could load all our music into one central player?

That day has dawned, and I have in my employment a ghost DJ, Mr. Shuffle, who rifles through my music files like an auditory I Ching. I've even occasionally done iPod "divinations": What does a random selection of five songs say about my day? I stopped doing that the day I got "He's in the Jailhouse Now," "Gloomy Sunday," and "Suicide Is Painless" in quick succession.

But I increasingly find myself feeling adrift in a sea of music, not content to enjoy each song by song but somehow always conscious of the vastness of the possibilities… and it exhausts me down in some intangible way. Now that I've removed my own choice from the equation, I occasionally have wonderful discoveries of tunes I'd forgotten about and would never think to pull off the shelf, so to speak; more often, though, I'm distracted and dissatisfied and wishing the DJ would play something else, then something else, then… When someone asks me what I've been listening to lately, I no longer have a ready answer. I don't have those phases where I play one record over and over until I know every note in my bones; I bought Elvis Costello's new record—when was it?—and just loaded it directly into the iPod, more eager to add the new files to the library than to hear the music. I've heard maybe a third of it since, and maybe one day I'll have heard the whole thing.

This doesn't seem healthy. Yes, I've economized my CD storage space and helped to stock the shelves of local used record stores. But the trade-off is that, now that my whole collection is gathered in one cigarette pack-sized white box, it feels heavier than ever.


Ravi said...

Watch out, you might get what you're after

Anonymous said...

I've seen a couple of these articles now on iPod alienation, and frankly, I think it's overblown. The iPod is the perfect weapon against media consolidation, and a welcome (albeit illegal) window to musical discovery when I occasionally swap burned CDs of various playlists with my friends. (No lectures, please).

What I find more interesting is the "Halt! Or I'll Play Vivaldi" article that ran last week by your colleague at the Times, Scott Timberg. Essentially, classical music is being used as "crime repellent" and many are questioning what that means for the art form.

It touched on an idea I liked in the flawed movie, Immortal Beloved, in which Gary Oldman, playing Ludwig Van Beethoven, posits that music is a tool of emotional manipulation: "It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer." Only now, it seems music is also being used as a tool of behavioral and cultural manipulation.

So, whom do I trust more to pipe music into my head? Myself? Commercial radio? Or perhaps the local mall? Or maybe the homeowner's association that blasts Händel into a local park to scare off ne'er-do-wells? I don't think it's such a bad thing to use the iPod to block out the never-ending onslaught of garbage that is vomited on us by the media and popular culture every day.

KCRW tastemaker Nic Harcourt and his ilk are relied upon too much as the providers of our musical discoveries these days. Why do we seek other people's endorsement of music in order to allow ourselves to enjoy it? What do we really think about the music that we consume? Do we even know what our opinions are, or are they regurgitated from what we're told by the authorities? The problem with the iPod, if any, is that with the "shuffle" setting, it artificially takes the onus off YOU to provide your own soundtrack.

So maybe the answer is to curb your “shuffle” habit.

Want to really get into that latest Elvis Costello record? Set the iPod to that album (in order, if you like) and to "repeat." Voila!

Want to expand your tastes? Go to the Echo or Spaceland at least once a week, or subscribe to a season at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or swap a few of your favorite tracks with an open-minded friend (and hope he’s not some music industry G-man).

If your iPod leaves you feeling alienated, it's only because you haven't been using it and the other tools available to you to their full potential.

On the other hand, my government leaves me feeling extremely alienated. I recently read in the LA Times that George W. Bush enjoys listening to Credence Clearwater Revival on his iPod. What?? Can he not see that Fortunate Son is a wholesale condemnation of him and everything he stands for?


Anonymous said...

I've been craving an iPod all day and then I come home and read THIS. Funny thing is, it made me want an iPod even more. I could use a little alienation. As long as it includes a few of my favorite songs...