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In Which I Examine My Listening Habits

January 18, 2012
record needle

Growing up, vinyl records were never a big thing in my house. Most of my early music listening was on cassette. CDs were nothing short of revolutionary. Now in the age of MP3, I seem to have come full-circle in how I listen to music.

When I was a kid we traveled overseas a lot. We had a few of my mom’s old Motown records and some Disney read-along stuff. But records and turntables just can’t take the rigors of that lifestyle I guess. They’re heavy and delicate, and thus impractical.

Most of my listening was passive anyway; I didn’t really “discover” music until my tweens. Got myself a little portable player and some headphones and I was set. Thanks to the limited functionality (three buttons: PLAY, STOP, and FAST-FORWARD, oh yeah…) and a limited supply of AA batteries, I was more or less forced to listen to tapes start-to-finish. There wasn’t much jumping around from song to song. Even if I had favorites it was too much of a hassle to skip directly to them, so I learned to absorb music in whole-album format. It never occurred to me that the artist would have put any thought into song order or “side A” versus “side B.” I simply accepted the order out of expediency and got used to listening to my music that way. INXS’ Kick, Def Leppard’s Hysteria, start-to-finish every time.

In 1988 my parents bought our first CD player. It was actually a six-disc changer with a grossly impractical cartridge/magazine thing about the size of a double-CD case. Despite the cumbersome nature of loading discs (upside-down I might add; don’t ask me how long it took me to figure that out), it felt suddenly very powerful to skip entire songs with the mere press of a button. CDs completely changed my approach. When listening to a new record, my patience and attention-span became short. If I didn’t immediately like a track, I skipped it. My god, such power! Merciless was my index finger! Almost overnight, the albums I acquired became mixed affairs of favorite songs surrounded by nameless filler that I would only bother listening to if I was too lazy to reach the SKIP button.

Oh sure, a few albums merited the approach of old, and I even dallied with the “Random” button on occasion (another heretofore unheard-of and wholly magical feature). But I no longer cared for the artist’s idea of album “flow” or any other such conceits. After getting burned a few times spending my hard-earned, minimum-wage dollars on a whole CD for two maybe three decent songs (yeah, The Breeders, I’m looking at YOU!) I started to get pickier in my buying habits. I actually cared for maybe a third of the material that filled my CD rack. Mix-tapes featured the best material and the CDs themselves rarely saw any action.

At first, the advent of MP3 set me further down this cynical, obtuse spiral. I would borrow friends’ CDs and rip only the songs I liked and damn the rest!  When I was short on cash, I just ripped the favorite tracks to MP3 off a few CDs and sold the discs down at the local used-CD shop. There were still artists (Tool, Radiohead, etc.) to whom I would give the benefit of the doubt, but I’d say fully half of all my music consumption consisted of singles and novelty tracks. Interestingly, this opened me up to artists and genres I had ignored for decades. It suddenly became possible (and acceptable) to listen to songs by ubiquitous pop artists without having to bear the shame of actually owning their CD.

These days, Amazon and eMusic are great resources for good old-fashioned MP3s in all their lossy yet DRM-free glory. Those sellers and Apple’s iTunes store make individual songs available for pennies. Top-40 singles sell bazillions of copies, but whole albums are purchased less often. (Do the Black Eyed Peas even release albums anymore? I honestly have no idea.) Magazine after pundit after blogger have asked the quasi-rhetorical (and in my opinion obnoxious) question “is the album dead?” Of course the answer is “No, stupid.” But it is easier than ever to live the music life I lived for most of the late-90s and early-2000s, consuming music piecemeal with blithe disregard for the artist’s efforts at albumcraft.

And yet…

I choose to listen to whole albums again more often. I am unable to pick a favorite song from Deftones’ 2010 masterpiece Diamond Eyes, or Gojira’s The Way of All Flesh, or The Sword’s Warp Riders. I listen to all three parts of Robyn‘s Body Talk without skipping a single track. Every Vandaveer record … Memory TapesElbow … The Black Keys … The Bird and the Bee. More often than not, I start these albums at the beginning and just let them play. I’ve moved from a passive, utilitarian listening experience, through a vicious tornado of fastidiousness, and on to a Zen-like acceptance.

What’s changed? Has good music gotten better? Are albums just all-killer-no-filler these days?

Or is it me? Perhaps I’m reacting to the capricious nature of youth and … well, smelling the goddamn proverbial roses. Is this what they call “personal growth?” (And not the kind that you need to get looked at by a doctor?) Maybe, in my old age, I’m more inclined to give an artist a fair shake, to take what they give me, to accept and consume it as a whole, and I’m simply being rewarded with better quality entertainment for my earholes.

Of course, it’s also entirely possible that I’m simply too lazy to reach for the SKIP button.

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