Don’t get me wrong, I still listen to entire albums, though rarely at one sitting. When was the last time you did?
Column 154: Listening Attention Disorder
The insidious disease is destroying the LP.Lately I’ve noticed that I’m developing Listening Attention Disorder (LAD). It’s a disease that’s sweeping the country (and the planet), brought on by an affection for iPods/iPhones and anything else that plays mp3 files.As a professional music critic (Yes, I actually get paid for writing this column. Not much, but at least enough to fill my gas tank (for now)), I figured I was immune to LAD. Critics must have a keen ability to FOCUS on music, to hear its subtle nuances and hidden meanings. It is only through this Zen-like state that they can ascertain if something is “good” and worth your time and money, or just another hack job. Few are those who have this gift, and most lose it before they reach the age of 30. Some day I’ll make a holy pilgrimage to New York City and seek out my personal writing guru and spiritual mentor, Robert Christgau, who has been reviewing music for four decades (going on five). I’ll ask him how he’s managed to maintain his ability to “hear” music amid the ever-present static cloud that circles his mailbox. How has he been able to provide the same critical perception to both Dudes We’re No Angels (Columbia 1975, rating B+) and Battles Mirrored (Warp 2007, rating B-)? Christgau, who was “let go” from The Village Voice a few years ago (The fools!) is without peer, and now writes for Rolling Stone (among others).But I digress. My modis operandi for reviewing music is to first download the material onto my iPhone so that I can take it with me to the office, to the gym, to the grocery store, to wherever it is that I can listen to it with my high-quality Bose ear buds (If you’re an iPod user and you’re still using those crappy white ear-buds that came with your Nano, you’re missing half your music. Consider this a holiday gift idea).I hit play. I listen. I FOCUS. Even if the music initially stinks, I give it time. To breathe. Sometimes you don’t “get it” in the first 10 seconds (though 95 percent of the time, 10 seconds is all it takes). If it ain’t happening, I skip to the next song. And the next. And the next. Until I find something I like. Or don’t. And so on.I have more than just music to be reviewed within the 1,400 tracks that litter my 8 gig flash drive. Most of my favorite albums are there, both new ones (Cat Power’s Jukebox) and ones that I’ve loved since high school (R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction).But since I got my first iPod a few years ago, I noticed that I prefer to play music in “shuffle mode,” excitedly anticipating what little surprise Apple will cue up for me next.It’s this shuffle mode that is the main culprit behind Listening Attention Disorder. It feeds our yearning for variety, the kind of variety we always wanted from our radio stations (Does anyone still listen to radio these days?). If you’re in shuffle mode and happen onto a song that you’re not in the mood for, you can merely press the >>| button and move onto something else. That hunger for variety is insatiable and is killing our ability to concentrate on any one artist or one album for more than a few songs.I never thought I’d suffer from LAD. But recently, it crept into my psyche. I’ll begin listening to a complete album, but after four or five songs, I’ve had enough. Though I might like it, I get bored and want to hear something else. The idea of listening to, say, Pink Floyd’s The Wall in its entirety seems alien, though I used to do it all the time.LAD didn’t exist before Compact Discs. Sure, in the vinyl days, we could always lift the tone arm off the record and skip to the next song. But that took ambition. Most of us were too lazy to get up, so we suffered through the flaccid out-takes and filler that never made it to the radio to get to the good stuff that ended Side A and precluded turning the record over. Track order, it seemed, was everything. When CDs came around, it was only a matter of time until the first 100-CD (then 300-CD) jukeboxes were made for home stereos, complete with “shuffle mode.”Record labels figured out LAD a long time ago, which explains the recent emphasis on singles over albums. Kids can now download only the songs they like, leaving the fluff behind (along with some of the album’s best, yet unpopular, tracks). The experience of listening to complete albums is dying, right along with the Compact Disc. I recently spoke to a musician who said his band will now only record EPs, that kids these days don’t have the patience for LPs in this “age of shuffle play.” Neither, unfortunately, do most adults.With the death of the album comes the death of an idea, of a concept, of a theme that lasts more than four minutes. Is convenience and variety really worth giving up artistic ideas that demand listeners make a commitment beyond the time it takes to use the bathroom? Whether we like it or not, the answer for most people is probably yes.
Tomorrow, an interview with Mal Madrigal, whose new records fly in the face of everything you just read. And in case you haven’t noticed, Pitchfork published its top-50 albums of ’07 yesterday (here). No. 1, Panda Bear’s Pitch Perfect, was one of the more boring records from last year. Lists generally suck (and as proof, I’ll be posting mine next week).
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