The Rebirth of the Track
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month we explore the idea of Storage Devices: how people listen to music and what that means about what they actually hear.
The majority of my positive listening experiences in the early 1990s, when I first really became aware of pop music, came directly from the radio. For the first few years, I listened intently to Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown each weekend and compiled the songs I liked best on a series of C60 cassettes. At that age I was fairly indiscriminate, gleefully taping everything from Nelson to Black Box to Phil Collins. Gradually, my tastes began to narrow: in 1992-93, I shifted my attention to hip-hop and R&B; that phase was then swiftly followed by an interest in alternative rock, sparked somehow by the Stone Temple Pilots song "Plush." But throughout this entire period, I was focused on the radio hits. Sure, I bought the occasional album-length cassette, Vanilla Ice or C+C Music Factory, with sleeves that smelled fondly like hard taco shells, but the best songs were always the ones they played on the radio, anyway. I was a singles guy.
But eventually that changed. Despite the fact that the "alternative" radio format became a misnomer within months of its advent, thanks to the massive popularity of bands like Nirvana, it still proudly championed an ethos of looking beyond the mainstream, following your own lead. And so it wasn't long before I took that cue and began asking more knowledgeable friends of mine how to discover music without the benefit of a leadoff radio single. The answer: read reviews, take chances, borrow as much as you can.
Though it hadn't occurred to me until just now, the first rock record I heard completely cold must have been PJ Harvey's 4-Track Demos, dubbed from this cool arty girl I befriended the summer after my sophomore year of high school. It was obviously a minor release for Harvey, with most of the material appearing in more finished form on Rid of Me, but it was so creepy and raw, I had trouble imagining any of it sandwiched between So-Cal pop-punk and Burger King commercials. By the time I got to college, I rarely depended on the radio anymore, and my accumulating collection of Pavement and Sonic Youth records had me beholden to the virtues of the album.
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Though pinned on individual genius, this transformation was also in many ways inevitable, as a result of changes in technology. When Cohan first began writing songs, for instance, recorded sound was in its infancy, and his songs were thus mostly disseminated through sheet music. Divorced from a set performance, the songs were sold separately, so that home musicians could incorporate them into their repertoire as they wished. Once sound discs became more prevalent at the start of the 20th century, it solidified the pop songs as an art object, rather than just a folk tradition. But early records were also limited by space: the 78 RPM disc (the dominant format for much of the first half of last century) of Benny Goodman's "King Porter Stomp" (1935), for example, could only hold about four minutes per side. A two-hour opera, therefore, could be expected to run well over 30 sides, as a 1908 recording of Carmen did.
These considerations naturally tilted the market toward short pop songs rather than longer works. Only in 1948 was a commercially viable long-playing disc introduced to the public. If it took nearly 20 years for the full potential of the 33 1/3 LP to be realized by pop acts (classical musicians understandably seized upon the format almost immediately), it is partially because the three-minute pop song had become firmly entrenched in two of music's major venues of reception: the radio and the jukebox, both of which promised its listeners variety. In fact, jukeboxes became only more popular in the 1950s, as the concurrent introduction of the 45 RPM disc (designed for singles but sturdier than 78s) allowed the machines to expand their selections to, in some cases, 200 discs.
But the late-era Beatles did signal a change in the way pop was conceived and constructed, and they were followed by acts like the Who, who used the LP format to produce concept albums and rock operas. Which in turn paved the way for innumerable prog-rock bands of the 1970s, consecrating the album experience through ten-minute suites that demanded patience and attention, if not also, perhaps, an altered state of mind. Further changes in technology allowed for even longer compositions on a single format unit, as opposed to the double and triple LPs that were becoming ever more common. The compact cassette, originally devised in 1964 but improved over a number of years, generally allowed up to an hour of recording time. And the compact disc, launched in 1982, was formalized at 74 (later 80) minutes, about twice as long as most LPs; a rumor persists that the length was determined by a Sony executive who wanted to ensure that Beethoven's 9th Symphony would fit on a single disc. All of which set a favorable climate for the album as the central mode of listening to pop, and especially, too, as the first generation of rock critics largely referred to LPs in their efforts to valorize the genre.
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But it's also impossible to underestimate the effects on my generation of the proliferation of mp3s and mp3 players in the last five years. Before 2003, Stylus competitor Pitchfork had never published a list of the top singles of the year, but both of us offered justifications for doing so that year having to do with the way mp3s have reshaped our listening habits. "The rise of the mp3," this site claimed, "has nearly made the album format extinct as a useful way of presenting a new artist or style."
In some ways, the mp3 player has only continued the trend toward higher-capacity storage devices: the 80-minute CD has now given way to the remarkable eight-day iPod. But there's been a simultaneous trend over the last 50 years toward greater control over the navigation of the device. Consider it: track selection on a vinyl record entails getting up, flipping the record if need be, and carefully dropping the needle on just the right groove. But the digital format of the CD allows one to skip around from track to track with ease. And the mp3 player offers even greater flexibility: unattached from CDs' physical limitations, one can breezily sort files into playlists, mixing and matching different artists and genres without digging through any crates or shelves. Which, for a music fan, is hard to resist.
I wind up listening to single tracks a lot these days because, like many people, I've downloaded songs to sample unfamiliar artists or to compile some of my favorite radio hits. One of the most recent beneficiaries of my new listening habits has been Lady Sovereign, the 18-year-old U.K. grime star whose debut album isn't actually expected until later this year. In anticipation, I've been playing a handful of one-off tracks of hers I've acquired in various Internet corners, and I've found her agile rhymes and cheeky boasts to work wonderfully, even in the absence of a unified context.
However, what I'll also do is upload a full album, listen to it a few times, and then drop my favorite song into an all-purpose best-of-'05 playlist. If I'm not otherwise feeling the album, it's a great way to salvage what is good about it—like, for example, the title track on the shitty new Daft Punk album. At the same time, I sometimes worry that such an approach makes it all too easy to cast aside the album prematurely, having felt like I've already gotten all I need. Instead of listening to the entirety of M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us, which I'm not yet sold on (but could be!), I usually just play the single, "Don't Save Us From the Flames," which I immediately liked. On CD, I'd probably just let the album keep playing; on mp3, I skip to whatever I'm in the mood for next.
Still, the mp3 player's amenability to single tracks is probably ideal for someone like me, who has always been extremely curious and invested in music but has never actually been a voracious consumer or obsessive collector of albums. It's an exciting moment in music history, at any rate. I can be a singles guy once again.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-04-13