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09 February 2011

The Shuffling of Music Has Diluted Its Cultural Impact I'm not 100% on board with this argument, but I do think it's an interesting discussion.[More:]
Access to an endless stream of decontextualized music speeds our free fall into nostalgia. We forget that DEVO was protest music, the Talking Heads made social commentary, the Pet Shop Boys were gay liberationists. These weren't just songs that played at prom, they were reactions to the Cold War, to Reagan, and to America's rust-belt decline.
Buying an album was a big event as a teenager. Saved up my cash to take to the record store in my home town and hope that they had a copy in stock. I'd take it home and play all the tracks in order two or three times in a row while studying the lyric sheet and the cover art and re-reading the band's profile in a recent copy of Rolling Stone.

Now I click on an Amazon button on my phone while I'm eating breakfast, download the bargain album of the day instantly (for about 1/4 to 1/3 of what it would have cost me in 1979 in adjusted dollars) and unceremoniously dump the tracks in my shuffle-all queue and listen to them as they show up in the random stream.

Part of it is that technology has changed our relation to music and part of it is that I'm old.
posted by octothorpe 09 February | 21:51
There's something to that idea, negative consequences to shearing music from its context, but the passing of time is I think a bigger factor in diluting cultural impact, or at least cultural menace.

Elvis Presley & The Beatles were threats to civilization when they burst on the scene, but by the time I was a kid in the 1980s, they were pop culture icons.
posted by ibmcginty 09 February | 21:51
I don't do shuffle. Period. Probably a holdover from my college/post-college radio days, at first building my own cool music sets but then going to work where the music was 'pre-programmed' (often without human intervention) and my job was just to hit the start button and announce it. As a result, my last radio-biz connection was in writing one-liner jokes for disc jockeys ("The Little River Band with 'Cool Change'. Hey, Cool Change I can get behind. Damp change, notsomuch" - yes I got paid for that). But for my personal listening, I NEVER use shuffle; I always take a few minutes to build my own playlist. That was what I loved about the Dear Departed MetaRadio. If I don't want to bother, I'll let one of the cooler internet radio stations do the music selection... right now my 60s-70s-80s nostalgia needs are totally satisfied by Great Big Radio, put together by an ex-DJ who now does a lot of voiceover work and made it his hobby to program an excellent selection of "hits and songs that should've been".
posted by oneswellfoop 09 February | 21:57
I think people overlook the fact that the 'album' itself is also a creation of technology and economics. the cultural idea of a collection of 12-20 songs isn't necessarily the best expression of a bunch of music, it just happened to be one that made sense for a particular type of performer and an industry at a certain timeframe in the 20st century
posted by Firas 09 February | 22:01
also songs were limited by radio-friendly lengths and all of that
posted by Firas 09 February | 22:02
It is amusing that even though digital media allow songs to be any length, most current pop songs would still fit on a 10" 78 from a hundred years ago.
posted by octothorpe 09 February | 22:25
this is how we listen to music now, a genreless jumble

Not me. I still have yet to buy my first single cut online. I buy CDs. I want the context. I want to hear what other music the band plays. In fact I rarely buy a "greatest hits" album. I want the music in its original setting.

That article made its point right away, and then spent too many paragraphs navel gazing.
posted by Doohickie 09 February | 22:37
I mostly listen to whole albums with the songs in order, not shuffle. I'm old and stuck in my ways I guess.

Sometimes I want to listen to some particular songs, but then I just search them out one at a time. I never build playlists.
posted by DarkForest 09 February | 22:50
If I were to document every bit of that guy's experience with music (we are roughly the same age) that was the opposite to mine, I would be here all night.
posted by Ardiril 09 February | 22:52
Most of my songs are album length, so I haven't noticed a difference.
posted by Eideteker 09 February | 22:57
+1 for Doohickie. Me neither- besides the context and setting, I want the album art and liner notes in their original form. And... it's a dang shame to waste a good sound system (Klipschorn, Crown, McIntosh etc) on MP3's!!
posted by drhydro 09 February | 23:20
I'm in complete agreement with the article. The subcultural associations are fading fast, and more's the pity. I still vividly remember being about 7 years old and seeing my summer camp counselor wearing a "Grateful Dead" t-shirt. I couldn't possibly imagine how anybody could be grateful to be dead.

The physical object is important, too.. Some years ago, I had an opportunity to beg an autograph from Dave Brubeck after a concert. I presented him with a early pressing of the "Time Out" LP. "Hey" he said, "This is a really early one! Where'd you find it?"

"Yes sir!" I replied - "I wish I could say it had some personal history, but my mom left her copy in South America during the Peace Corps, so I hadda buy this one." He chucked and autographed it with evident relish.

Expanding on Firas' point, it's worth mentioning that the term "album" in the context of the vinyl LP was lifted more or less directly from the concept of the photograph album. It's a collection - in the era of 78 rpm disks, it took multiple discs to contain a longer symphonic composition. They were sold in hard-bound book jackets, much like photographs are kept in.
posted by Triode 10 February | 00:30
I got a new music player lately, and this week I've been listening to music by decade on shuffle. The Nineties shuffle is like a sledgehammer of nostalgia smashing into my skull with each track.

This guy's 42 though (about my age) and I wonder how much his view is shaped by his generation.

My Dad described how in the Fifties or so, you couldn't get away from, say, Beethoven whatever your social background, because there were only a handful of radio stations and they played Beethoven sometimes. If you wanted lighter music you had to wait.

So in part, the transistor radio, the 45 and the LP shaped an environment where music could be divided into genres.

But also I think musical tribalism is something that happens in your teens and early twenties. I'm dimly aware of the existence of things like dubstep and grime and occasionally I see helpful charts linking dozens of similar genres to explain them to old farts like me, but I'm pretty much baffled by them. So I'm not convinced musical doesn't exist just because it doesn't impinge on me much.

Also realistically, the young rebel music of today seems to be pretty much derived from the various intersections of hip-hop and techno, whereas this guy seems to be more into guitars and stuff.

The media sometimes gives a misleading impression than in the Sixties everybody was listening to the Beatles and the Stones. Actually young working-class people were listening to the Beatles and the Stones. Trendy young middle class and college kids were listening to Miles Davis and other modern jazz. People over 30 were listening to Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra.

So, a lot of people over 30 today who think their musical tastes are pretty damn cool are actually listening to the equivalent of Tom Jones, and it's a bit silly of them to wonder why they're not getting into rumbles with the Frank Sinatra crowd.
posted by TheophileEscargot 10 February | 01:51
also songs were limited by radio-friendly lengths and all of that
Except that, one of the awesome things about albums was that, when you bought them, you got a different, longer, better version of the song on the album and the only way you could hear that version was to slide the vinyl out and lovingly place it on the turntable, then sit back and let it happen. Music was an event, not just background.

I'm an album person, too. Also another one that likes to own the actual, physical object and read the stuff contained, look at the photos etc. I don't listen to CDs anywhere near as often as to songs on .mp3 and you'll pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands but, when I really want to listen to music, it's the shelves of CDs that I turn to. Even though I mostly listen to music as .mp3, I almost never listen to anything other than albums. The only exception is when I'm running, where I have a 'running' playlist of music that helps me maintain pace and, when turned up loud enough, drown out the messages from my brain telling my legs to 'stop running, for fuck's sake'.

I wonder, though, if my perception (and maybe others) is coloured by my liking music by artists who wrote albums rather than writing singles and stuffing a bunch of them together when they had enough. I also wonder if I'm full of shit.

I'm well over 30 (well over 40, in fact) and I don't think my taste in music is cool. I also don't give a flying fuck whether I'm cool or not, which is fortunate, I guess.
posted by dg 10 February | 02:50
Yeah, it drives me fucking spare to hear the scherzo before the adagio.
posted by Hugh Janus 10 February | 08:29
you got a different, longer, better version of the song on the album

Unless it's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby. different and longer, yes, but not better
posted by DarkForest 10 February | 08:59
I'm with ibmcginty on this issue, only it's more than just time passing. It's the assimilation of the other. (Think of a paramecium engulfing some food.) And then the other ceases to be other and we need new other. (Because, an hour later, you're hungry again.) Those who can't assimilate the other are the ones fighting change and wanting their country back.
posted by Obscure Reference 10 February | 13:07
I hit random until a song says to me: "By god, YES, this is the one of the thousand albums on your server you really wanted to listen to" and then I start that album from the beginning and then listen to what seems to come next.

I realized sometime a few years ago that while I enjoy the randomness of the random, I just missed my records. I missed the bands. I wasn't getting any of that from shuffling.

The world changes. That's okay, I guess. But I also miss record fairs. I also miss that what was popular in LA was unknown in Texas; what was cool in New York was not available in Chicago. Now those hidden gems are much easier to share with people far away. It takes a lot of the secrecy and delicious conspiracy out of music. It adds a lot of pressure, I think, too, by making it easier to create something that gets views, but harder to make something that has legs.
posted by crush-onastick 10 February | 13:09
I differ in that I listen to music as a performance. I have preferred live albums over studio productions, as well as experiencing a band on the stage.

A good example is The Cars. Their first album was a testament to studio production and much more a performance piece for Roy Thomas Baker, the producer.

Live, however, the Cars were a much different animal than the sleek polish of "My Best Friend's Girlfriend". The band onstage was raw, boozy and loose. Some (many?) would even say they sucked. The backup vocals were shouted more often than offering up the lush harmonies of the album. Rick Ocasek's rhythm playing remotely followed former Modern Lovers drummer David Robinson's garage-pop grooves. Elliot Easton only had one synthesizer and an organ in performance, a synth without presets requiring quick stabs at approaching the settings of the recorded sounds. Whereas Ocasek took the lion's share of the lead vocals on record, he and Benjamin Orr swapped leads live.

For many bands, as well, the studio version of a song was often the first draft. Repeated performances often honed songs into other shapes. Also, even though bands released new albums, their fans still wanted to hear the old songs, so the new stuff often fought against the predecessors with only a few new ones winning a spotlight while interspersed among the more familiar material.

Further, listening to an album in the original order is for me an exercise in stagnation. The only way I can listen to icons like Piano Man or Boston any more is at random. I cannot listen to "More Than A Feeling" at all if it is the first Boston song in a playlist. I can still find new moments in Dark Side Of The Moon or The Downward Spiral when the song orders are rearranged.

Finally, the greatest thing about generalized random playlists is when two otherwise disparate songs make perfect sense when played in order. Those moments are magic.
posted by Ardiril 10 February | 14:45
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