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Greater Access to Music = Less Magic in the Long Run?

15 June 2006

Lately I feel like my music listening is on fast-forward. I’m always putting on this or that new band, hearing about something and tracking it down, checking out the latest album by so-and-so one time and then setting it aside. And the fact that I’ve finally, if only partially, entered the world of iPods and MP3 downloading has only accelerated my listening habits even more.

Add to this picture the used LPs that I come across at yard sales, the cassette collection that I’ve been trying to re-explore (and pare down, I hope), the CD collection to which I’m perennially trying to do the same (if more cautiously), the music I borrow from libraries, and the music friends share with me, and you can see that my world’s a fast-paced and complicated one, at least as far as music-listening is concerned.

Of course this has been the scenario for much of my life, but each year it gets more hectic. While I’ve always rejected the notion that there’s too much music released day-to-day (too much music in the world is a problem?), sometimes I wonder whether there’s too much music in my world. Of course I can’t give up the game; I’m an addict to this musical expedition. But still I think about how the ways that my favorite albums of the past are still a part of me, and wonder whether the pace of my seeking and listening will make that sort of album love impossible.

Name a point in my life and I can instantly connect it to the album that I was obsessed with at the time. Third grade? DURAN DURAN’s Rio. Sixth grade? MOTLEY CRUE’s Theatre of Pain. Eighth grade? GUNS AND ROSES’ Appetite for Destruction, of course. Early high school? PUBLIC ENEMY’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Middle of college? GUIDED BY VOICES’s Bee Thousand, big time. And so on…

But that’s getting harder and harder. Ask me my favorite album of 1994 and I can do it quickly. Ask me my favorite album of any more recent year, and I’ll give you a hundred titles…and then think of twenty even better ones right after you walk away.

Certainly this isn’t because the music today is better than it was in the past—it’s that I have more access to more music. That’s fun and exciting in the moment, but what about that special connection you can have to one album, and one album alone? When it’s the only thing you’ll listen to for weeks straight, or months even? Put on A TRIBE CALLED QUEST’s The Low End Theory and I can rap (horribly) along to every word. I haven’t listened to RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik in years, and haven’t missed it, but I’m sure I can do the same with it. Put on any of several old PRINCE albums and I’m immediately rejuvenated, brought back to my youth. Put on YO LA TENGO’s Electr-o-Pura and it’s like an instant tonic bringing me to a state of nirvana earned through the hundreds of times I’ve listened to it.

I run into albums I love every week, and that’s part of the issue: my feelings towards music are just as sincere, but inevitably I move on to the next thing far sooner than I used to. By picking up the pace of my music consumption, have I sped past the opportunity to make the sort of connections that last for decades, to burn the music so strongly into my memory that it will always be there?

If I listened to less music, I’d no doubt miss out on a ton of great music, and because of that possibly be less excited about music overall. So there’s no question of going back; I’m on a full-speed-ahead journey as a music fan, one that I hope will last the rest of my life. But sometimes I wonder if I should slow down a bit, try harder to cherish and savor and allow myself the pleasure of extreme repetition. If I don’t, what will any of this music mean to me when I’m old and gray?