Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Inconvenience of Convenience and the Glasses Colored the Shade of a Rose

This is the article "The Trouble With Easy Listening" from the Los Angeles Times, 26 March 2010 edition, by Steve Almond. It's reprinted here without permission. That's the interwebs for you! I have a reaction at the end of Mr. Almond's column, but I thought he should have his full say before I tell you just how wrong he is. Take it away Steve-O -- ....

When I first encountered iTunes, the wildly popular music app that allows fans to compile their own collections and digital library, I was agog. After 20 years of amassing music, I had more than 4,000 albums, most of them stacked precariously in my basement.

The more I used iTunes, the more slavish my devotion grew. If I wanted to play a particular song, I no longer had to go hunting through those stacks. I just clicked a button. If I wanted to make a mixed CD -- a process that had taken me hours, particularly in the cassette era -- I had only to create a new playlist. And if I heard a killer song at a party or on the radio, there was a handy online store where I could instantly download that track for a buck.

Not only was my musical archive more organized, it was portable too. Thanks to the wonders of the ever-shrinking iPod, I could carry thousands of songs with me wherever I went, on a device barely larger than a postage stamp. (If you had presented me with this gadget even a decade ago, I'm pretty sure I would have proclaimed you the Messiah.)

But for all the joys of such wizardry, I've been experiencing a creeping sense of dread recently when it comes to iTunes, a dark hunch that technology has impoverished the actual experience of listening to music.

See, back when I was a kid in the '70s, the way I listened to music was pretty simple. I put an LP on the turntable, dropped the needle, then sat on the living room rug and listened to every single note. If I liked the record a lot, I would listen to it two or three times in a row, usually with the album cover on my lap, so I could study the lyrics and artwork.

In other words, I considered listening to an album an activity in and of itself. It was not something I did while working on homework, let alone while checking e-mail or thumbing out text messages.

If I listened carefully enough, in fact, the songs allowed me to tap into certain volatile emotions that felt otherwise out of reach. When I closed my eyes and immersed myself in Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," for instance, I was overcome by a rare and all-encompassing optimism. AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" filled me with the intoxicating power of my own aggression. "Can't Stand Losing You" by the Police allowed me to accept my own romantic woe as entirely justified and maybe even somewhat comic.

I really miss the fact that listening to music used to be a concerted sonic and emotional event, rather than the backing track to some flashing screen. It was more inconvenient, to be sure. But for me, this inconvenience was part of the whole point.

I liked that I could only listen to my albums on a turntable in the living room. I liked yearning for my favorite records. I can still remember spending the entire day at school counting the minutes until I could get home to listen to the transcendent power chords of Styx's "Paradise Theater."

I even liked that there was a whole process involved before you got to the songs. You had to thumb through your collection, put the record on the turntable and then set the needle down with the utmost care.

Listening to the opening notes of my favorite songs sent shivers down my spine. I felt the same way about listening to them on the radio. I used to lie in bed for hours, waiting for KFRC in the Bay Area to play Alan O'Day's wonderfully cheesy single, "Undercover Angel." The song, when the DJ finally played it, felt like a gift fate had bestowed specifically on me.

Look, there's no question that technology has made music cheaper and more accessible. But I wonder if it hasn't been made less sacred. The ease with which we can hear any song at any moment we want no matter where we are (and often for free) has diluted the very act of listening, rendering it just another channel on our ever-expanding dial of distractions.

I'm sure if I tried to explain this line of reasoning to a teenager, it would sound like a lame and predictable celebration of the olden days. Then again, chances are today's teenagers will look back on iTunes with the same misty nostalgia I reserve for my LPs and CDs.

Steve Almond is the author of "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life," to be published in April.

Hi. It's me John again. Couple of things about that piece ...

First off, "Paradise Theater" by Styx sucks. Sucks hard. Sucked when it was released. Continues to suck right now. In thirty years time when people are listening to it via the chip implanted in their cerebral cortex immediately after birth, it will still suck.

Ahem. Forgive me. But it's true.

Second, I am not a teenager born to the iPod age. I am a crotchety old man who grew up alongside (temporally speaking) Mr. Almond right there in his beloved 1970s. I shared many of the same listening experiences that Mr. Almond mentions. When the iPod era struck, I had converted most of my vinyl to CDs, but like him, I had stacks and piles of music falling over in every corner of my home. Still do, actually.

Third, I will concede several points that Mr. Almond makes. I do miss having twelve-by-twelve album sleeves to stare at intently while the music played. Great album artwork has been lost as the images have dwindled down to thumbnail size and that's a shame. Also, there is something about a song coming up on the radio that's kind of cool. It's not the worst thing in the world to occasionally relinquish a little control and indeed, it can be exhilarating.

But this notion that the modern level of convenience somehow devalues the listening experience, that not having to cope with all the annoying rigmarole that listening to a record album on a turntable with a needle used to entail somehow ruins things, that's just incorrect.

If the vinyl experience is so terribly awesome, then go ahead and have it. Thanks to club DJs, turntables have never really gone away and are still readily available. I imagine that a devoted audiophile like Mr. Almond has kept his record collection in high-quality shape. Indulge in your Luddite listening to your heart's content!

I'm always suspicious of people who pine for the good ol' days. The good ol' days were never all that great. When pressed, most of these nostalgics will cling fervently to their modern conveniences.

But I'm really suspicious of vinyl snobs, because I came of age as a music fan during a time when -- for the average fan -- vinyl was the only game in town. And unless you could afford some insanely top-notch (and wildly expensive) audio system, it sounded like crap. I still have a few cassette tape recordings I made from my old album collection back in the late Mesozoic Era. I've played them most recently a few years ago. They are unlistenable. The sound is wall to wall with the grinding of the needle across rubber, with crackles and hisses, with fuzz. You know. The stuff vinyl fans refer to as "warmth."

Digital music has its flaws, but for a run-of-the-mill average fan, the value you get from an mp3 is leaps and bounds and scads and oodles better than a grinding old vinyl 45. This isn't a contest.

But I suppose that's not really what Mr. Almond is most upset about. The premise of his article is that it isn't so much the quality of the sound that's been devalued, it's the quality of the experience. Somehow being forced to make a specific effort to listen means you value the experience of listening more. To an extent, I can understand.

It's true that with the convenience of an iPod or -- God help you, a Zune -- music is more portable and can be brought along while you engage in any number of other activities. I use my iPod during lengthy morning walks with my dog. It would be difficult to bring my old turntable on such strolls. In those sorts of instances, music does become a background soundtrack rather than a primary experience.

But I also like to indulge in an album or two just before going to bed, with the lights out, focused completely on the music, especially if I've just obtained a new release from an old favorite. The iPod's convenience doesn't preclude choosing to make listening to music a full-focus activity that's just as rewarding and exhilarating as anything I ever experienced sitting on my bedroom floor listening to my old Close 'n' Play.

And that's the point. Having that choice. I'm sure there are people who never choose to use their iPods as anything other than background. But if you desire the experience Mr. Almond describes, that's available to you as well. Having the convenience of modern technology means that your music listening time can be as focused or as scattershot as you choose to make it. I would suggest to Mr. Almond that it isn't his iPod that's desanctifying his music. It might just be the choices made by the guy he sees when he looks in the mirror.

John and Dave talks Oscar nomination predictions