iPods and the death of community

So here’s my theory: there’s a direct link between the rise of iPods (and other types of mp3 players) and the death of community. Bear with me here.

It used to be that you bought albums. Albums were (are) soundscapes, with accelerations and slow points, and rises and falls, with valleys and peaks. They include songs that are pleasing to the ear and songs that aren’t so much. But they sit each song in a context, the sounds and moods of one morphing into the next, introducing it, following on from it. The first song on an album matters, simply by virtue of being the first song. There’s a reason it’s first, and the second one follows from it, and the third precedes the fourth, etc., right down to the last song, and sometimes even the bonus track.

Of course, the first albums were vinyl, and in my opinion it still hasn’t been topped for sound quality (clarity and perfection isn’t everything). There were, of course, the smaller version with 45’s (SP and EP) but they were mostly still whole albums. Then there were cassettes. Cassettes also came as whole albums, and their construction meant that you had to listen to side A before side B, and once you’d listened to side B you couldn’t just listen to side B again without rewinding the whole side. The hassle of fastforwarding or rewinding to find the right ‘spot’ for the start of a particular song meant that most often you wouldn’t bother, and therefore would listen to the whole album in its entirety.

Then there were cds. This made skipping tracks much easier, but you still had the whole thing, and without direct, deliberate intervention, you still had to listen to the whole album. There were cd singles as well, of course, but you usually bought them as a trial for the album, or to see if it was worth buying. Nonetheless, the concept of the cd single (and to a lesser extent, the cassingle) began the slide I’m talking about.

Then computers revolutionised the cd; because the sound was digital, it could be ripped into a digital format and played individually. And then it was mp3 players. Then iTunes and iPods meant you never had to deal with the surrounding paraphernalia of the album. And now all we have are individual songs standing alone, starkly naked in their individualism. They rise and fall on four minutes of pop glory.

I reckon there’s a link here with the rise of individualism in our (Western) culture. Now of course there’s the phenomenon of riding the tram (or train, or bus) with at least half the passengers looking like refuelling robots, what with the wires protuding from their ears, but I’m not talking about that kind of individualism that revels in its own world despite being very much in public. I’m talking about the hedonism of individual songs vs the longer patience and effort required to listen to albums.

The only songs we are prepared to put up with now are the best, the brightest, the poppiest. But divorced from their proper context in an album (which is, of course, how they have been historically made and placed), the song becomes an isolated, individual phenomenon that is greatly, greatly impoverished for having to stand alone.

It’s not a big leap to extrapolate this out to people. No longer do we live in communities, groups of people where we have to put up with the bad as well as the good; where we have to deal with difference, with unpleasantness, with difficulty. We can choose who we live with, who we interact with, who are our friends and who aren’t. Now some of that’s natural; but what happens when we strip individuals of their context in community and take them as stand alone pop units?

We lose the album sense of community. The up and down, the texture of sad and happy, the peaks and valleys of human frailty and triumph. We place so much value on the hedonism of my own pleasure or comfort that our senses are never expanded or taken on a journey. To paraphrase John Donne, no song is an island.

So I reckon we need more Ghost Train in the August and Everything After of our lives. More Within You Without You in our Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bands. More Zoo Station in our Achtung Baby.

Know what I mean?

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