Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned From My iPod (Part II)

Old joke.  Woman: My husband thinks he’s a chicken.  Doctor: Why don’t you just tell him he’s not?  Woman: Because we need the eggs.

I have about 2300 songs on my iPod and, strange as it seems even to me, I’m down to maybe five that I actually want to listen to.  The rest are boring.  Boring.  I’m bored with all my music.  And I know, if I listen to the five songs I like today, I’ll be tired of them very quickly.  And then there will be no songs left on my iPod I care about hearing.

It strikes me as odd that I always seemed to have enough good music around when I was younger and really listening to music, and now that I listen less and require less, I can’t seem to keep 25 songs that I really like on a playlist.

B.i.: Before iPod.  A.i.: After iPod.

If you are a person of a certain age, it’s likely that you possess a personal musical canon, a mental collection of albums (or CDs, for people of a slightly younger certain age) that you know by heart.  Every song, every lyric, every guitar lick and drum solo.  All 12 or 13 songs in the collection.  You “own” those albums, so to speak.

I’m hardly the first to say this, but we have become a nation of skimmers and samplers.  One of the great economic benefits of iTunes is that it freed us all from having to buy 12 songs--an entire album--when we only wanted to hear two.  Now there was an economic windfall we couldn’t pass up.  And to have instant access to our personal “hits” was a technical miracle and the definition of instant gratification.

In retrospect, though, we also lost something--in this case, the advantage of having, owning and being constrained by an entire album.  First, the good songs were fixed in place and only came around once a side, which meant they lasted much longer.  Second, the songs you didn’t like--well, some of them, even many of them--you got to like.  It’s a funny thing about repetition.  Or, maybe it’s just the need to immerse yourself in something for a while to get to appreciate and like it.

Scotch might be an example you could understand.

I know there’s a debate in play about why people are willing to embrace modern art but not modern classical music.  I also know there are theories of all sorts, including the theory that modern classical music is just awful.  My theory is simple: You can skim modern art, but you can’t skim modern classical music.  A museum, 10 minutes, 5 paintings--hey, I like that artist.  That painting is cool.  You’re walking, you’re talking, you’re checking your texts, you’re thinking about getting a chocolate chip cookie at the museum cafe.

That cannot be done with modern classical music.  It’s not skimmable.  (Though, in its defense, it does lend itself to chocolate chip cookies.)  You have to immerse yourself.  Listen again.  Put down everything else--no multitasking--and really be present.  After all, we know from experience that just because something doesn’t sound good the first time doesn’t mean you won’t like it, or that you even really heard it the first time.  There’s some heavy lifting involved here.

If you belong to a book club you will understand the nature of the problem.  Sometimes the group will pick a book that, left to your own devices, you would avoid like the plague.  Reading it often means working through 50 pages of pain, maybe 100, only to discover the book is really, truly good.  And sometimes, after you’ve read it and you still think it’s awful,  the couple hosting the evening will have done enough background research on the author or the book that it becomes better.  Sometimes even much better.

One Hundred Years of Solitude might be an example you could understand.

OK.  Maybe not.  Anyway.

It’s a funny thing about focus and taking a deep dive on material: you find out maybe you’re not as limited and shallow as you sometimes worry.  The art’s good, the book’s good, and the modern classical music ain’t that bad, either, if you’re just willing to hang in and work at it a little.

It all comes down, I think, to the essential concept of happiness vs. satisfaction.  (See Is Happiness Overrated?)  It makes me happy to only buy the two songs I like from an album.  I pay less and get to listen to exactly what I’ve already determined I love.  But I don’t challenge myself.  I get bored.  I give up longer-term contentment for shorter-term happiness.  

So now, of course, you can ask me the obvious: Why don’t I just buy an entire album on iTunes and listen to it over and over again like I did in the old days?

My most truthful answer is, I guess: Cause I need the eggs.