It’s a plain folder, found nestled deep in the recesses of an ancient hard drive, holding days and days of painstaking work. Labeled simply “90s”, with a web of Artists, Release Years and Albums, it represents my most safely worn epoch. Copying it out of its native environs, transplanting it into a music player to be carried through dull Xerox tinted days, seems like a grave sin against the past. But any feelings of transgression melt away when I plug in and hear the distorted steel drums of Tool’s Aenima. I wonder how I could have spent any of the last decade without the sonic comfort I’ve just rediscovered.
As I page through the dozens of stand-alone ditties that formed my conception of music at the turn of the century, I realize that my Napster sourced collection doesn’t accurately reflect the way I listened to music over a decade ago. I ‘m hard pressed to find anything approaching a full album on this greatest hits tribute playlist. Truth is, I never owned anywhere close to the volume of the collection that I so laboriously catalogued – and what I did own was constructed on a series of eclectic hand-me-downs and found materials that caused my CD rack to hold Sailor Moon, The Three Tenors, and Trisha Yearwood with nary a hint of irony.
Instead, this collection emulates a particularly epic set list of radio rock. The more I revisit it, the more I realize it forms a musical fata morgana. It’s a commentary on what I remember the '90s to feel like, not an attempt to capture what I was really listening to back in the Clinton years.
Among the many changes that the vast and infinite web has brought to me, the absolute thrill of being able to find a single song at a moment’s notice is well in the top 5. Just the other week, I instantaneously and miraculously became 80 Microbucks poorer when I realized that I Want it That Way was not on my laptop. This relative convenience has turned my music collecting into a mad grab at tiny slivers of personal significance. Were I more organized, I’d have a hit list of songs that I absolutely must have at my beck and call before my time on this blue marble comes to its close.
For the majority of my life, music was something to be experienced but not necessarily collected. One of my earliest memories involves a portable music player and disappointment at not being able to listen to Stevie Wonder’s "I Just Called to Say I Love You" ad infinitum. Knowing that I could not call the song as I wanted led me to value the moments I was able to catch from the radio. Later, when I could afford modest toys, I spent a large chunk of my music listening endlessly replaying the CDs and Tapes that came under my possession. I remember long car rides in Mexico looped against the constant flow of country music. I remember a clandestine 16 hour Greyhound trip from Berkeley to San Diego, made tolerable thanks to Poe’s Haunted, made amazing after discovering that the entire album was one long slice-of-thought tribute to the presence of the singer’s father. And, like so many other wide-eyed teens, I remember rainy nights set to the sounds of Dark Side of The Moon.
I may have the routine of cataloging down to a science, but the art of listening is something sorely missing from my modern music experiences. Much of that owes to the fact that I’m just not as interested in buying whole albums anymore. The digital music revolution lets me cut out the filler. I’m free to sink my wallet into whatever individual tracks I want, without the messy commercially repugnant B-sides to clutter up my e-walls. I'm free, in other words, to be picky.
And picky I most certainly am. That freedom I mentioned has led to troubling habits that keep me from venturing too far off the well trodden path. My interest in music has cratered recently. No surprise, since my car rides are filled with youth anthems and familiar bands. Who needs current hits when I have decades worth of space waiting to be filled in? The last album I purchased, a little indie-published beauty that I had discovered on a chance outing to a music club, was never listened straight through. Instead, I scanned, replayed and removed. I spent no time getting accustomed to its lyrical flow. No time to learn the shifts in tempo, to appreciate the order and selection of songs. Instead of an event, my little indie album became a stripmine that I efficiently sorted through.
Just another sacrifice to the gods of Random Shuffle, with its viable ores perversely stored on my Zune.
It’s instant gratification, plain and simple. The ability to jump through a catalogue of thousands of songs promotes a shortened, disinterested, attention span.
I don’t really want to listen to Bach this moment. Nor do I care for this particular Luther Vandross work. Trance? That can wait for driving, I suppose. When there’s a deluge of talent available, who has the time to sit through 45+ minutes of just one artist?
It’s an odd truth that a little scarcity can lead to wonderful discoveries. This may be the nostalgia speaking, but my formerly limited access to entertainment prompted some resourceful and, in many cases, rewarding habits. It taught me to learn to really listen to the quaint assembly of discs that sat on my wall shelf. It taught me to take care in choosing what I would have with me during those uneventful days. It taught me a kind of patience that is only found in wanting.