About a month ago, Pink Floyd won a lawsuit against the record company EMI, deciding that the group’s songs could no longer be sold as individual tracks; from now on, they shall not be sold separate from the albums they appear on. The case seem clear enough, since the group actually had a clause in their record contract detailing exactly that. And as someone who owns a handful of Pink Floyd albums and have listened to them off and on since I was 12, I can certainly appreciate that some of them – most notably The Wall, but also Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon – are albums with their own narrative structure and internal logic. They were never intended to being consumed in any other form or order. It would simply diminish them as albums.
But at the same time, the lawsuit seems like a drawback to an earlier era, when our patterns of music comsumption were more fixed than they are now. The Norwegian newsweekly that brought me the news interviewed a range of musicians who, while appearing to understand the artistic impulse behind Pink Floyd’s protectiveness of their legacy, championed a different approach to music consumption than what was once dominant. One respondent talked about how much of his sympathy for Pink Floyd’s argument for the primacy of the album evaporated when he thought about how his carefully put together playlist was just as powerful in bringing back memories as any particular album had been. Another respondent stole my nostalgic heart by comparing the decision with having to tell himself as a music obsessed 10 year old in 1993 that he couldn’t listen to Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train without first having to buy Grave Dancers’ Union, the album on which it was a single. It’s not just that I love the power-to-the-people populism of his argument – making it less about artistic freedom and more about being grateful for your fans, whatever way may want to express their fandom; it hits close because that kid could just as easily have been me. I’m a couple of years younger than the musician who told the story, but I too sat glued to MTV in anticipation of Runaway Train, or Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There, or 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up. If someone had taken that away from me, they would have provoked a one-man riot.
I mention all this to prepare you for my great friend Bryan Borland’s recent poem Top 40. It’s about how we need and use music to express our innermost feelings, but more than anything it’s a meditation on how music consumption has changed in an era of digital music libraries and instant access. When Bryan invites you on a trip down memory lane, you’d better tag along. So, let’s take a look*:
In the days before iTunes,
I courted every song released
as a single. Cassettes were $1.99
with the radio hit
and a throwaway B-side
that saw less play than my high school girlfriend.
I made Billboard lists ranking lips
to ass, my crushes paired with albums, my own
Hot 100. These are things
you need to know, children:
that all the music in the world
wasn’t available with a point and click,
that the relationships we cultivated
with our idols lasted longer
than a television season. That we made love
and gods of our rock stars
who knew what we needed to hear,
what we needed to say
to the boy next door who we imagined
watched as we replaced our tongue-tied muzzles
with the confidence
of a hairbrush microphone.
One of the things I love about this poem, is that its unabashed nostalgia makes music feel important again. It’s like that early scene in Almost Famous, in which a young William Miller discovers all the classic albums that his sister has left for him. I loved everything about that movie and its portrayal of the rock myths of the 70’s, but I loved nothing more than that particular scene, because it took music down to a personal level; you could immediately sense how this gesture of a loving sister-brother relationship lit up something in William, whether it was gratitude or rebellion. Not only had William found his calling, he had found a way to express it through others. To acknowledge that other people can express your feelings just as well as you can is an important part of growing up, and nothing is better at it than music.
When I first read it, I thought such thoughts would be off limits; that I would be able to engage with what it said about music consumption more or less separately from what it says about how we use music as self-expression. But I soon realized that that’s impossible. It’s simply too tempting a parallel. But because I thought I could separate these things, I also think I read it a little too narrowly. It’s a poem about all the work that went into being obsessed with music before the iTunes-fueled instant availability, but the way I read it and the lively discussion in the comments section, this has less to do with the broader availability itself, than with wanting to remember the days when making a mixtape actually took some effort and a personal touch. As I remember it, only people who really loved music – no matter it was the flavor of the month or something your parents had from your parents’ collection – made mixtapes. I sort of imagine them as younger versions of Nick Hornby’s perennially mixtaping protagonist Rob Fleming from High Fidelity.
I would have been perfectly satisfied if I could read this poem as simply a romantic memory of what it meant to be into music in a different age than ours, but as anyone who has only passing familiarity with Bryan’s work can attest to, there tends to be more to them than you think initially. When he says, in a perhaps sarcastic nod to the indistinguishable nature of today’s dominant pop acts, that “the relationships we cultivated with our idols lasted longer than a television season”, this is not about a wish to feel superior to later generations; it’s a comment on music consumption itself. It was because, for most of us, it had to. In my childhood you didn’t have the chance to go download or stream whatever song was stuck in your head at the moment, and unless your parents were rich, you couldn’t just buy all the music you wanted. I think that’s Bryan’s point. When we clicked with an artist or a record, we often had to stick to that until we tired of it, or until we got a chance to buy another one. That, or we could turn on the radio and hope that the played the song we most wanted to hear, so that we could tape it. Heck, in the early 1990s, you could even see me holding my little stereo up to the TV, trying to record the music of MTV videos onto a music cassette. It was the easiest (if by no means the best) way to get your favorite songs without running the risk of buying an album you turned out not to like, simply because you liked the single (this changed as we got older and earned our own money, of course). Like Bryan, I don’t mean to imply that the abundance of available music has made today’s music lovers complacent, but his poem remembers – honors, even – a time when the indefinitely repeated listening experience was at least partially grounded in the fact that it was the best choice you had. It is why I will always have a very special place in my heart for albums like Bryan Adams’ So Far So Good, Aerosmith’s Get a Grip and Bon Jovi’s Cross Road, among others.
That said, my transition to a world of unlimited music choices has been relatively painless. I no longer buy physical CD’s, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to take in so much more music than I even thought possible just five years ago. When we idolize simpler times, I don’t think it’s because we want them to come back; it’s to remind ourselves, and others like us that we were there. Bryan, who bemoans how the playlist has replaced the mixtape, may disagree slightly, but if the music is good enough, or holds enough emotional power, I think – I know! – that some artists or albums can demand precisely the same dedication from a listener, regardless of whether I bring it with on a portable player or I have to to across the room to change to b-side cassette; whether it was one of 200 albums on an iPod or one of 20 on my CD rack. The instant availability of anything else didn’t discourage from entering into to an obsessive relationship with Jay Brannan that has had me listening to his albums almost daily for the last year, or from discovering and wholeheartedly embracing The Jayhawks. And no matter how many choices I’m presented with, my listening pattern has kept remarkably stable for years: I may be into Jesse McCartney, Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift, and Emmylou Harris and The Mountain Goats have definitely paralyzed me for a time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not loyal to Hanson and Bruce Springsteen at my core. In that sense, I’ll always be stuck in 1995, with my Springsteen Greatest Hits compilation, trying to memorize the words to My Hometown.
* Reprinted with permission