Music, the internet and us.

Lucy Jones is by no means the first to worry about the impact of the internet on our listening habits, but this resonated with me by coming so soon after the release of ‘MDNA’. Madonna is one of the few artists whose new albums I anticipate with a tingling mix of anticipation and dread, because I know that it will instantly become part of the soundtrack to my life. Each of her albums is loaded with memories and associations for me. This is undoubtedly strongest and most common with her, David Bowie and the Manic Street Preachers, but there are many records which take me to other times, other versions of myself. Prince’s ‘Symbol’ album always places me back in my childhood bedroom, listening to the cassette over and over and scrambling to fast forward through ‘Sexy M.F.’ when I could hear my mum in the hall outside. With ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ I am in my friend John’s bedroom, revelling in a joint teenage misanthropy and poring over the lyrics. ‘Ok Computer’ and ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ were both bought on one of the first days after I left school. My parents were on holiday and it was just me and our dog, Kerry. She got sick and wouldn’t move from her bed, so I blasted the albums through the house while sitting beside her. I always associate ‘More Adventurous’ by Rilo Kiley with my tentative steps into PROPER ADULTHOOD – living in Glasgow, having a responsible job and falling in love with my friends over and over again. ‘The First Days of Spring’ will forever be inextricably linked with Rob, particularly when he lived in Camden and we would shuttle between there and Hackney on the 253.

There’s always the risk when engaging in nostalgia about music and when it really meant something that you’re just getting old. I’m reminded of the Coupland quote from ‘Life After God’:

I believe that you’ve had most of your important memories by the time you’re thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don’t register the same way or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn’t compare to the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylors’ patio furniture into their pool in the eleventh grade.

They’re not called ‘formative’ years for nothing and it seems a no-brainer that the music which soundtracks your adolescence and resulting emergence into the world would seem more profoundly evocative. Yet the point about changing listening habits is, in my own life, undoubtedly true. I probably listen to music on shuffle/playlists far more often than I listen to albums these days. I frequently have to force myself to listen to an album I’m unfamiliar with; even then, I’ll sometimes have to fight the urge to change if it’s remotely difficult. Being able to have pretty much any album you would ever want to listen to within minutes, and for free, may have its undeniable benefits but it means there is such a roaring avalanche of options that it’s tempting to retreat to what you know or, at least, the genre you’re comfortable with.

As always with question about how the internet is changing things, my thoughts turn to younger generations who’ve never known anything different. What does music (and albums, specifically) mean to them? Going by the anecdotal evidence of forums and Twitter, it seems pretty common for today’s teenagers to see albums as playlists to be amended, ditching tracks they don’t like, changing running orders etc. Do you really commit to challenging yourself, stepping outside of what you know, persevering with ‘difficult’ music, if you can simply get rid of it and reshape it to suit in seconds? The transcendent joy of ‘discovering’ a completely random song, album or artist with which you were unfamiliar, or the leap in your stomach when something clicks with you on your fourth listen to it, are experiences which seem to be made more difficult by modern technology.

This argument obviously isn’t confined to music. One of the most famous recent works looking at the effect of the internet, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that it makes us less prone to concentration and contemplation. Even more dramatically, it argues that it alters the neural circuits of the brain to this effect. A recent article in Adbusters looked at the studies of Antonio Damasio at USC which purport to show that, as well as encouraging a tendency towards more ‘shallow’ thoughts, the internet also raised the spectre of a generation with more ‘shallow’ emotions.

These arguments are much discussed and much disputed. It is, however, difficult not to see them as persuasive when you look at Twitter. It seems to be more and more common for people to rush to a strong judgment on everything and anything based on not much at all; more than that, to feel entitled to their judgment and to scorn competing views rather than be able to engage/debate with them. People will ‘live-tweet’ their way through countless tv shows and films. New songs and even entire albums will be dismissed within minutes of them becoming ‘available’. It could be argued that this is merely technology reflecting and enabling what is already there – certainly it would be silly to believe that twenty years ago we were all considered, informed and slow to judgment. Yet just as it is commonly accepted that the printing press, telephone and television changed humanity in profound ways, it is reasonable to believe that the internet is doing so currently. The positive argument is that kids growing up with it are developing the capacity to digest large amounts of info, quickly learn new things and multi-task in dazzling style. Questions about what it does to their (and to our) core beings in terms of how we relate to one another and to our culture are far more profound and so, far more difficult to answer.

When I posted the Lucy Jones article last night, my brother responded that he also adopted the habit of Mark Wood by clearing his iPod each month and putting new music on it. I think I’ll give it a try.

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