Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ipods on Shuffle

Once upon a time, musicians and record producers agonized over running order for albums. You obviously wanted to put a strong track at the beginning and at the end of an album, but in the vinyl-era, it was also essential to consider how to end side 1 and what would begin side 2. It was also completely reasonable to leave off a good song entirely if it didn't adhere to the same stylistic considerations as other songs on an album. When Mick Jagger released a greatest hits album last fall, he included some unreleased tracks, including one that he had left off an album because:

"I didn't want another dance track," he says. Listeners don't think of albums as cohesive collections these days, "so now I wouldn't be reticent about that" (USA Today).
Indeed, the death of the album has been much documented, with the ipod blamed for establishing (or re-establishing) the primacy of the single over the album, and rendering run order moot. However, given my essay of a few weeks back regarding what I call the "Archival Era," I'm inclined to think that the ipod is more a creation of this era that a shaper of it. Even though radio programmers still for the most part carefully manipulate playlists so as to prevent what the industry refers to as "train wrecks" (such as Madonna and Nickelback playing consecutively), there has emerged in recent years the "Jack format," in which you could conceivably hear AC/DC played back to back with the Eagles (and surprisingly for some radio execs, the world is still standing).

Conventional wisdom is that the Internet has allowed individuals to channel their interests into specialized subgenres. Marketers are in turn encouraged to target niches. Although technology has certainly made it easier for people to pursue exotic flavors, I think the vast mainstream is just as eclectic as it was when 1950s and 60s Top 40 radio would mix together rock, folk, pop, soul, country, and R&B. The ipod is simply restoring a way of consuming music that never would have gone away had radio not abandoned it.

A supposed tenet of postmodernism is that Shakespeare and comic books are now on equal footing (as they are indeed both on my bookshelf). I would seek to complicate this conventional wisdom as well, though. It is a tenet of my "archival era" that we are still quite intent on an Aristotelian categorizing of artifacts and data; we are still obsessed with labeling. However, we are not, as in past days, doing so with the intent of determining a rigid hierarchy, in which some items are given inclusionary privileged status. We simply want to account for it all. After that, everything can flourish or not as the individual pleases.

A good example of how this plays out is in the tiered programming of cable and satellite television. Although consumers would probably benefit economically from a shift to ala carte programming, there has been no mass uprising against the cable companies, no groundswell of support for such a proposal. I suspect this is because we revel in being in the archival era-- there is something exciting about having specialized channels devoted to old movies, weather, sports, sci fi, men, women, blacks, Latinos, racing, music, pop culture, news, cooking, Catholics, Evangelicals, game shows, golf, cartoons, classic television, shopping, etc... And though certainly we all have our favorite channels, who has never wasted time on channels that have only limited interest for them? More to the point, who has never, in ten minutes of watching television, never randomly indulged in multiple channels of wildly diverse content? (I remember being particularly frustrated when watching an NFL play-off game at a friend's house, being subjected to watching a nature program during commercial breaks).

The truth is, that despite an attempt by demographers and marketers to pigeon-hole us, our interests, and our very lives for that matter, are ipods set to shuffle. And that's the way we like it.


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