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The trouble with easy listening

Opinion

iTunes and iPods -- what's not to like? How about the devaluation of the music experience.

March 26, 2010|By Steve Almond

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.

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