MP3s — Not the Apple of my iPod

07 May
MP3s — Not the Apple of my iPod

When my iPod goes dead at long last, it will not be replaced by another chrome clone.  Why?  Digital music is for the dogs.  I’m done with sacrificed quality for quantity’s convenience.  I don’t know about you, but I really don’t need every song on every album by every band or composer I like with me at my disposal whenever I like.  Added to that, a small library of digital books and enough podcasts to fill in the silence it would take to space-canoe to Pluto, good lord! like I’m ever going to get to all this stuff.  Plus it’s rather unnecessary.  I am confident that at no time in the history of human beings did average people (i.e., not technocrats) say something like:
“Say Bill, you know what would be a real improvement to my daily life?”
“Naw, what’s that, Betty?”
“A tiny device I could fit in my hand that would store all of my music, Bill, all my music as well as radio programs, plays, books, newspaper articles, lectures, photographs, videos…  Or better yet, all on my telephone!”
“Hold on there, cousin Betty!  That’s just crazy talk!”

Like the computer itself, the iPod is a solution to no known problem.Especially when the tonality of the music is dulled and condensed, “compressed.”  Listening to mp3s is rather like smelling a bouquet of roses wrapped in cellophane with the touch of a tourniquet; it’s muffled, stifled.  You get a glimpse, an impression, but it feels like the sound is underwater or beneath a bedtime blanket.  And while maybe this too says something more about me than you, with all that music at my disposal (40 days of nonstop play 24/7 at last count — and I still don’t have the damn thing totally updated!), the likelihood of me playing anything besides Stereolab and The Beatles, or whatever new group I just got turned onto just the other day, is next to nothing!  The more obscure a band that I can ever so conveniently upload or download onto the mother lode and completely forget that I ever even included them in the first place is exceedingly probable.  (The insane ease of plugging my dumb device into someone else’s computer and extracting curios from their collection…when all that’s entailed is simply clicking and dragging a mouse horizontally!?!  This is music?  This is…anything?)  In fact, I would argue that the iPod actually encourages hoarding and gluttony, wherein we all become insatiable archivists and collectors of the arcane, precisely because it is so damn easy to do so.  But in doing so, don’t we become a kind of self-styled fetishists?

And not to sound preachy or anything, but are we really being cool to the band if we’re not paying for any of their music?  Because we can, and it is an act of instantaneous gratification with the utmost simplicity, neither exonerates nor inoculates us from at least a modicum of moral obliging.  Are we fans of the band or parasitic pirates?

Also, I know that even if I stopped downloading podcasts today, I still won’t ever get around to listening to all the ones I have already.  Yet they keep generating…weekly if not daily!  And of course I do actually want to listen to them (while else would I have subscribed?), whether its the anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and what the environmental movement means today or an interview with the writer of a book about the American diplomat to Germany during the 1930s and the rise of the Third Reich — how could I not want to know about these things?  That’s not the question though, not really.  Am I really being honest with myself that I am going to make the time for this in my precious daily window of 24 hours, while also and no less attending to the far more incumbent matters in my small, silly life?  Probably not.  If it were public radio programming alone, still I could never keep up with it all — even though part of me would want to — to say nothing of the infinite space of all those DIY satellite podcasts, food-for-thought chautauqua tchotchkes, clever obscurities, Radio Free Europe-type gonzo, 60s-era happenings, ham radio hootenannies.  It just doesn’t stop.  Not that this bad, of course; it’s just all so unwieldy and intimidatingly vast, a boundless soundscape plenum.  Who can work a job, be a parent, not be a parent but have other shit to do, keep up with the news the old-school way, do what makes us happy and defines us as us, not do anything and just chill, eat, sleep, defecate, fornicate, and take showers or baths, do the laundry, read poetry, watch movies, et cetera ad nauseum — and still find the time for all these podcasts, audio books, downloaded music?!?

So why shell out a couple hundred bucks for a product at some shitty big box store that ultimately makes a profit for a global company that deliberately dodges paying its taxes?  Or get frustrated (iRate?) when I lose my music somehow without my having done a damn thing, when human beings in developing countries are all but literally slaving away in sweatshops and giant factories something between Dickens and Kafka and truly ruining their lives, all for the superfluous pleasantry of my first-world fancy?

Before the iPod there was a generic mp3 player that held a paltry 2GB, a gift from close friends.  I’m a little chagrin to admit that the tiny Philips 2GB/Go stayed in its box, unopened, for over a year.  I finally got around to it during a long and nasty, protracted battle transferring music from one computer to another.  (There are not enough bars of soap in the bottom of all Ireland’s springs or feathery nests of doves to have washed from out my mouth the umpteen million curses, expletives, threats, and pure execrations to that evil fiend called digital files and unsupportable networks!  And had children not been nearby, keyboards and monitors would have been more swiftly chucked out the fucking window followed by a howling wake of broken glass, smashed plastic, and wires like the entrails of some sacrificial beast than if Stanley Kowalski himself had YouTubed Marlon Brando screaming “Stellllllllllllllllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” but could not do so without first installing some new plug-in that really was a Trojan horse virus in disguise and gunked everything up!)

It was convenient, to be sure, but the sound quality was crap.  As it happened I would end up moving twice in the span of three months (and then again a year later, followed by yet another move eight months after that; and still once more I will be moving somewhere anew by this August!)  Ergo, I grew tired of schlepping all those CDs and boxes of records, plastic tubs of tapes — all that unnecessary weight and taking space.  (Tapes?  As in audio cassettes?!?  Even if you wanted to, where the hell are you going to find a tape player?)  And I had a lot — like a lot a lot, hundreds upon hundreds of discs, tapes, and records, a ridiculous amount in all seriousness.  But not nearly as ridiculous, not even close, to the amount of crap I have on the iPod I bought to replace that first mp3 player, which I would finally succumb to purchasing and having in my life, like every-damn-body else I knew, because it seemed more practical.

More like a Faustian pact than practical, it would turn out.

Alas, the range of memory in digital music devices at the store was deplorable.  You could buy a trinket with 4GB, 16GB, or 160GB!  There was no in-between.  This was like the guy at a camping store trying to sell you his rich uncle’s McMansion when all you’re looking for is a two-person tent and maybe a new sleeping pad.  There was nothing available whose storage capacity was 16> but <160, which I found preposterous.  Nonetheless, I bought the gigantic gigabyte iPod, which I knew would fit all of Shakespeare’s plays in every language in the world if not every play ever written since Aeschylus.  Plus videos!  If I had any interest whatsoever in squinting my eyes at a 1.5″ x 2.5″ screen.  Plus pictures — my pictures at that, not that it has once occurred to me to include pictures on a digital camera that I don’t even own in the first place with my favorite live Phish shows or sarcastic Christmas mix playlist.

Twice now I have lost all or some of my music thanks to diabolical computer crashes or viruses.  This is a much different kind of burglary than the conventional notion of physical property taken.  When I discovered to my unknowns that it was gone, just whupt! wiped clean off the face of the earth on account of something I didn’t mean to do, or didn’t even do but it just happened all by itself, the feeling was quite disorienting and terribly abstract.  It’s one thing to lose because of fire or flood.  And still it’s strange if a thief skulked in your home and heisted all your CDs, records, tapes, eight tracks, whatever, like some kind of sick Santa Claus in reverse.  But when the loss is essentially virtual because what’s been lost is just digital, the loss itself still hurts like hell, but it’s further complicated by a bamboozling mystery.  How could this happen?  As quick as a wink.  Just…gone.

And there never is some blunt object close enough to smash the screen whenever iTunes tells me a file (i.e., song) cannot be found and pocks my otherwise beautiful catalog with exclamation points (especially when this is the result of Digital Rights Management even though I have actually spent my money for this music which in any other technological era would have been a tangible physical product and still have actually been mine to possess and do with at my pleasure)!  So, I didn’t buy the music?  It’s not mine?  What am I leasing some plutocratic corporation’s copyright on someone else’s creativity.  This is disgusting.

I make no claim on understanding the science involved in recorded music, but I’d settle for a wax cylinder fit for a time capsule than some strange flash drive with a gazillion MBs of super-compressed sound.  I’d rather buy an actual thing at a store or after a concert than click on some hyperlink on a website and discover by some kind of algorithmic magic that is now part of my music collection…for the time being…more or less anonymous with that vast sea of other songs and unknown artists, all of which can be as easily deleted or irretrievably lost as it was initially downloaded.  It’s too impersonal and precarious.  It seems like one more symptom of our disposable culture, where value has been so degraded by the ability to just replace.  I would never treat my books this way; why would I do so with my music, which gives me even more pleasure.

(And whatever happened to concept albums, not just individual songs like unnamed orphans kicked out to the curb?)

As young as I am, maybe I’m too old — but I like seeing my CDs and records, the individual albums, the colors and fonts, the tangible connection.  Opening up iTunes is a pathetic substitute full of false idols.  Even if my complaint were about aesthetics, iTunes just gets things wrong…often.  And each time I meticulously try to correct and document an album cover and titles of songs, a new version of iTunes is demanded, then downloaded, and some of my hard work in the conversion has gone haywire like some repeating nightmare of a museum curator or diligent taxonomist.  But it’s more than that: it’s that none of this is real; it’s all a shoddy simulacrum of what it should be — used to be.  Maybe the younger kids will be (or already are) immured to this, not knowing any better, and this is one of those bygone generational things, dagnabbit, but I for one want my music to be more than virtual and tied to a computer.

Like anything worth being called romantic, I know that this is a lost cause, my lone voice in this media wilderness hysterical and useless.  Everywhere you go people walk or bike or take the bus or subway wound around their digital devices.  Were I not figuratively an alien, but actually a literal one, come down to the blue planet like any anthropologist, I am sure I would take note of all the vertical creatures attached to white headphones, lost in their own worlds.  It’s a little off-putting or standoffish.  I know that nobody means to seem rude, but with all these souls crisscrossing this way and that in the public sphere hermetically sealed in their private aural reality, it feels disjointed.  Plus there’s the whole multitasking insanity: can’t we just run an errand or take a damn walk for the good of our spirits, and just be in that moment, noticing the world with as many senses as we can summon without having one of them intentionally highjacked by pre-scheduled programming?  Does this spell out the end of spontaneity, of the serendipitous, the impromptu; our eyes wide awake and our ears listening to whatever the world is saying?  Or do we just go about things like wind-up automatons with an agenda?

I’m pretty sure this is NOT what Timothy Leary had in mind about turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.

I am, however, quite confident that the fits-in-my-palm iPod will quit working thanks to its planned obsolescence well before I get anywhere near reaching its maximum capacity.  So then what?  It doesn’t much matter, for as long as my car and stereo can play actual compact discs — and tapes, ha! — my record player LPs, then I’m going back, not in any kind of nostalgic way, but back to my bulky, cumbersome appliances.  The sound really is better, as are my levels of stress and blood pressure.  So farewell future.  Vade retro Santana!

Euphoniously yours,
(you phony us?)

Thimas Dolby


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