Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Death of Music, Part 6: iPod Is Dead

You know what you never see anymore? You never see a guy (without any gadgets) just walking along humming a song to himself, or whistling a little tune. At the very least, you don’t see anyone born after the release of “The 10 Commandments” engaging in that kind of musical self-entertainment. What ever happened to that?

And I’m not talking about an insane guy belting out “Love Is in the Air” while wearing yellow footie pajamas in the middle of Times Square. I’m talking about regular joes and joe-esses like you and me, just bopping along happily to our own private soundtrack in our heads.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to see people gliding silently around with those omnipresent earbuds growing directly into their heads like parasitical vines, presumably rocking out to their favorite tunes. Strangely, their faces are almost always ashen and lifeless, as though they’ve been listening to an endless loop of “The Complete History of Carpet Tacks, Volume Five” as read by a heavily doped up Alan Greenspan. And they’re hardly, if ever, singing.

Oh sure, once in a while you’ll still see a lone subway rider jamming out to Joe Satriani like he’s having some kind of freak-a-delic hard-rock meltdown, but more often than not the iPod legions move in stealthy, icy silence.

You would think the technology that allows us to listen to a steady stream of music would enhance our ability to appreciate the stuff, and maybe even make us more artistic, creative individuals. However, the iPod seems to primarily serve two functions: (1) turning music into a totally passive, background experience, which requires little imagination, attention or exertion, and (2) locking us inside our own heads and making us oblivious to the world around us, so we can continue living on our own insular “islands” without engaging the world in any meaningful way.

While it is true that music has always been used to varying degrees as background fodder (in the car, for example) the iPod has made the “background” experience the PRIMARY way many people listen to music. Instead of focusing on music, they’re engaging in all sorts of other activities: they’re texting; they’re talking on cell phones; they’re buying crappy overpriced coffee; they’re getting in everyone else’s way. Basically, people are doing a jillion and a half other things while allegedly “listening” to music. I’ve experienced music this way, and I can tell you there is a big difference in how much you get out of a song playing on your car stereo vs. a song coming out of your iPod as you cross a busy city intersection with a taxi cab bearing down on you.

Don't get me wrong: it’s fine if you want to chill out with some music on a long bus ride, or listen to your favorite band while you jog on a lightly traveled back road. There’s also nothing wrong with using music to relieve stress, and no one doubts that music can, under certain conditions, benefit human cognition. However, people who spend their whole lives plugged into an iPod diminish both their experience of music and (sometimes unwittingly) the world around them.

If you’re constantly listening to an iPod, you can’t pay enough attention to actually glean any meaning from your music. Likewise, you can’t engage the world or avoid looking like an annoying, self-absorbed fool if you’re always cutting off 1/5 of your sensory input. (People who wear iPods inside crowded buildings are particularly irritating.)

All of which brings us back to our singing/whistling friend. When you see someone singing or whistling (who isn’t mentally deranged), you know you could say “Hi” to him and he would hear you. He wouldn’t raise a finger as if to say “Hold on” and then spend 10 minutes tugging at the intricate network of musical diodes protruding from his noggin. He’s at least semi-aware of the world around him.

Not only that, but I strongly suspect he is more mentally active than the the average iPod addict. At least the lone hum-man is using some part of his brain to recall the melody and recreate it through his lips. He's not just passively listening, letting a steady stream of meaningless notes erode his consciousness like waves slapping lazily against a mushy, pliable shoreline.

In short, people need to turn off the iPod's, turn on their brains, and get back in the real world already. Hey, if I have to live on this ridiculous planet we call earth, then they should have to live on it too.


Nick Ciavatta said...

Here, here! What bothers me the most is the people who have their ipods so loud that the whole bus or train car can hear it. There should be a law that you can, nay "must", punch them in back of the head as hard as possible...At least it's better than the "Boom Box" days.

Gerry Schramm said...

Replace "iPod" with "Walkman" and you sound like my grandmother.

I love my iPod. Rather than making music a passive experience, the iPod allows me to experience my music whenever I want to. As a dad with little free time I don't have the luxury of sitting down and listening just to an album for 45 minutes. Listening while walking to work is a blessing.

NiteOwlz / Glenn Page Music said...

I can sympathize with people who have no free time; I can't remember the last time I had 45 minutes to myself either.

For me, it's a quality versus quantity issue. I don't find listening to music under hectic conditions particularly rewarding. So, I would rather give up some music and wait until I'm in more subdued surroundings to listen.

I don't mean to imply one should only listen to music in a candlelit room with absolutely no intrusions. Very few of us have that much free time. But listening on a long bus ride, is much different (to me anyway) than buying coffee in a crowd of noisy people while wearing one, or walking through your work area with one on.