Monday, October 23, 2006

On music, culture, and the amazing iPod

Today, Salon ran an article commemorating the 5-year anniversary of the iPod. I found it quite interesting, even though I do not have an actual iPod.

Let me explain first: What I do have is the latest in a line of .mp3 players, which started with a 256MB sports one about 5 years ago, followed by a 1.5 GB Rio -- which I gave to Inbal about a year-and-a-half ago when I upgraded to the current 5 GB Rio Carbon that holds about 1500 songs. I also have my fancy little cellphone that holds 100 songs from iTunes. I keep thinking about getting the new 80-GB iPod so that I can digitize -- and transport -- my entire CD collection.

But as usual, I digress.

Salon's article discusses a number of things about the i-Pod -- and even mentions one author's claim that the gadget helped people to get over 9/11:

In the subway one day shortly after the launch, "I plugged in the iPod and the world filled up with the Byrds singing 'My Back Pages,'" Levy writes. "The faces around me suddenly became characters in a movie centered around my own memories and emotions. A black-and-white moment of existence had sprung into Technicolor. I held my iPod a bit tighter." He adds, "I wasn't exactly forgetting about 9/11, but I was getting excited -- once more -- about technology and its power to transform our world."
Hmmm. Really?

Anyway, there are parts of the article that I really agreed with -- most notably the part about how the i-Pod -- or in my case, similar technology -- seemingly transforms everything into a movie soundtrack:

Levy writes that when this happens, the music becomes a "soundtrack" for the scenery, which is a good way to put it. The iPod turns ordinary life -- riding the bus, waiting in line at the post office, staring at a spreadsheet for 12 hours a day -- into cinema. Levy describes the work of sociologist Michael Bull, who, when studying the habits of fans of the iPod's great ancestor the Sony Walkman, found that people liked to think of themselves "as imaginary movie stars" playing out scenes dictated by the music in their ears. . . . The iPod, with its greater capacity, alters perception even more profoundly; when the right song comes on, the world actually feels different.

There's a strain of oldster, Luddite criticism out there that goes after iPod listeners for cutting themselves off from the sounds of the everyday world. But, as Levy points out, "escaping" the real world is only part of the reason that people insert their earbuds in public places. The main jag isn't escape, but, instead, enhancement. There are moments when you're out in the world and circumstances seem to demand a certain particular song -- nothing else will do. . . . This is what Levy means when he describes the iPod as enhancing your world: It lets you use music to polish up an otherwise inadequate existence. When it works, the iPod seems to confirm Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The iPod puts a spell on you.

I have to admit that I do that. I mean, why else have I been walking around with my SLVR listening to Neko Case's "Hold On, Hold On" over and over again? Still, sometimes I get the same feeling when I'm driving in my car with the radio on. (And for a movie with that exact vibe, check out Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown.)

Still, I'm not sure how I feel about the author's main conclusion -- that the iPod is ruining the way we listen to music:

The plethora of choice makes taking in something completely new particularly difficult. Listening to an album you've never heard before is work; it requires time, patience, and attention. You can't do it half-assed. But when you play your new album on your iPod, there's always the lure of all those other tracks, and your mind drifts to all that familiar music, all that stuff you know and don't need to work to appreciate. So you inevitably start playing the same stuff over and over. The numbers seem to bear this out -- though iPods can store thousands of songs, the average iPod user's library numbers just about 500 well-worn tracks.

To a large extent, I disagree. Apparently, I'm unusual because I do listen to all of the songs on my player, not just a select 500-or-so. In fact, I usually keep my .mp3 player on random -- so that fate can decide which random song of 1500 is appropriate. It sort-of helps with the soundtrack vibe -- and in that way, I often let it dictate my mood for the day.

And, for the record (pun intended), I still listen to complete albums, from the first track through to the last. I love the artistry involved in song placement -- how do the songs fit with each other? (And for those who haven't done it before -- or in a long time -- start with The Joshua Tree. It is absolutely perfect in its entirety.)

Still, so many people just listen to songs, and have no idea about albums. But I don't think we can blame the iPod for that. I mean, it's not like they play entire albums on the radio.


Justin S. said...

I'm surprised you wrote a whole post about the iPod and didn't blame me for talking you out of buying one, then buying one for myself.

Dara said...

I thought about it. But honestly, you were only responsible for the initial .mp3 player purchase. If I want an iPod, I can go out an buy one at any time, so I really can't blame you anymore.

Eventually, I'm just going to have to get something that holds at least 100GB, so I can digitize everything.

mad said...

I made a BIG mistake when I bought a first-generation iPod. At the time, 1,000 songs sounded like a lot. I figured I didn't have a thousand songs I didn't want to hear over and over again, so I bought the smaller one. But, of course, that wasn't taking into consideration music that I would download later. It took awhile (cuz I'm really lazy) but I finally exceeded 1,000 songs. So, yeah, 1 terabyte of capacity would be good.

Dara said...

Mad: I hear ya. I really like my .mp3 player, but 1500 songs isn't enough.

The first sports one I had only held about 30, so I guess I should consider myself lucky. But it also had an FM tuner and was perfect for the gym.

Peter said...

I don't have an ipod. But, I recently hired a guy to follow me around and sing whenever I command it. Unfortunately he seems to be getting on other people's nerves. And I'm pretty sure that sometimes he makes up lyrics.