Thursday, December 14, 2006

How the iPod Has Changed My Musical Tastes

It’s been over three months since I got a 60GB iPod for my birthday. I’m still plugging away at putting my back catalog of cd’s onto the thing, and I haven’t even started on my way-too-big catalog of downloaded live cd’s (mostly Dave Matthews Band, Pat McGee Band, and Pearl Jam), but the important stuff is on there, and I figured it was about time that I look at how my tastes and habits have changed in that time.

First of all, let me describe the three main ways in which I use the iPod.

1) Slowly but surely, I’ve been rating the songs I listen to (1 star to 5 stars). I have a “smart playlist” that captures all the 4- and 5-star songs. As I’m driving, I tend to use that playlist as my own radio station, cycling through the 2,500 or so “top rated” songs. It’s lovely. Granted, about 300 of those songs are Dylan songs, and it pisses The Butterfly off because when she’s in the car it tends to play at least 3-4 Dylan songs in a row (she's not a fan). But that’s added entertainment for me, so I’m okay with it.

2) The other playlist I tend to listen to in my car is the “Covers/Vocals” playlist, a list of about 50 songs (including my own) that I like to sing along to as I prepare to record vocals for other songs of mine. Not sure why I’m sharing this, but whatever.

3) When I can (which is often), I listen to the iPod on low volume at work. This is when I tend to cycle through my unrated songs and give them a rating. The 4- and 5-star songs end up on my in-car “radio station”, and there’s a chance the lower-rated songs will never be heard from again.

So how has this changed what I tend to listen to the most? Well, first...not surprisingly, the songs on the “Covers/Vocals” list tend to take up quite a few slots on my “Most Played” list (for example: “Say Goodbye (live)” by Dave Matthews Band, “Home” by John Popper, “The Drugs Don’t Work (live)” performed by Ben Harper, “In Hiding” by Pearl Jam). That’s obvious. But I’ve noticed some other effects. For one thing, listening to the “radio station” mentioned above means I don’t listen to full albums very often. There are plenty of exceptions to that, but as a whole I listen to individual songs from albums instead of albums as a whole.

Also, the already-minimal time in which I actually listened to real radio has been cut by almost 100%. I never do it. I didn't do it much to begin with, but I'd listen to the local Adult Alternative station or something, and occasionally I'd hear a new band that I'd want to check out. No more. And since I quit Barnes & Noble a while back (I would usually end up reading about and talking about music for a good % of my shifts), that source for new music has been eliminated too. Any new music I discover nowadays tends to come from Rolling Stone, other random magazines I happen upon from time to time (mostly Uncut and Mojo) and eMusic.

I’m going to use an example to describe the most substantial effect.

Lots of my favorite albums end up not having a lot of songs I’d give 4 and 5 stars to, and other albums I didn’t really think I liked all that much end up with a large number of songs on the “radio station.” To illustrate this, let’s look at the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street versus Counting Crows’ Hard Candy. If you asked me to list my favorite albums of all-time, Exile would definitely make my Top 20, while Hard Candy wouldn’t even get a thought in my mind. Exile creates a really unique atmosphere with its lo-fi recording and large mix of old blues numbers like “Shake Your Hips.” Overall it’s an enjoyable (and long, 67 minutes) listen, and it was a pretty rewarding purchase. On the other hand, I liked Hard Candy when it came out in 2002, but it felt like a lesser Counting Crows album than previous efforts. Lots of enjoyable songs, but only a few I’d consider elite.

However, let’s look at the 4- and 5-star songs from each album:

Exile: “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Happy,” “Loving Cup,” “Shine a Light” (one of the most underrated songs of all-time...LOVE it...). I’m on the fence about “Sweet Black Angel,” but at the moment it has 3 stars. songs. Not bad, but if there were some formula to determine Best Album ever from my song ratings, this probably wouldn’t make the Top 50 or even Top 100 with just 7 highly-rated songs.

(Another good example would be Television’s Marquee Moon. That would definitely be in my Top 10, but I only gave 4-5 songs 4-5 stars.)

Hard Candy: “Hard Candy” (fantastically underrated song as well), “Good Time,” “If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel is Dead),” “Goodnight L.A.,” “Butterfly in Reverse,” “Miami” (love it), “New Frontier,” “Why Should You Come When I Call?”, “Up All Night (Frankie Miller Goes to Hollywood),” “Holiday in Spain,” “Big Yellow Taxi” (though, looking back, I’m quite on-the-fence about this one too). So basically, every song but “American Girls,” the main single from the album (I loved this song live, but the studio recording just doesn’t do it for me), 11 overall. With the “formula” I mentioned above, this would almost certainly put it in the Top 50.

Before I joined the world of iPod owners, I complained about the effect of mp3 players on musical tastes overall because of this exact effect. I love albums as a whole. The atmosphere they create, the track order, the flow of emotion or energy throughout the album...all these things matter to me a lot as a Certified Music Nerd (or Certified Music Snob, your choice). And yet, I’ve wittingly allowed myself to join the dark side.

How did I allow this to happen? And why? Because it’s just so damn convenient. Let’s face it—no matter how much we protest about short attention spans and laziness, convenience still matters in daily life, and the fact that I can switch from one album to another if I so choose without having to fiddle with a cd book while driving is quite lovely.

There has been quite a large positive effect other than that, though. I’ve rediscovered so many great songs and artists this way, and that has been extremely rewarding. Let’s face it...I can complain about how albums as a whole have lost some of their effect on me, but at any given time there were only 10-20 albums in my listening rotation. I hadn’t listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland for years, for example. Or The Very Best of Otis Redding, or Green Day’s Dookie, or Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, or my Bob Dylan Live 1961-2000 bootleg, or Atmosphere’s Seven’s Travels. All of these are in the rotation now, and I love it.

So I guess the bottom line is, I think about what I want to listen to less, and I enjoy what I’m listening to more. I guess it’s acceptable to sacrifice part of my Music Nerddom for that, right?