Yesterday I came across two loosely related links. WhoIsU2.com, and HuffPo’s “What Apple’s U2 Stunt Really Says About the Future of Music,” by Kristi York Wooten. The first is a pretty humorous collection of tweets from people who are not only confused about the appearance of new music in their iTunes shuffle, but who don’t even know who they’re listening to. The second is an overwrought analysis about the apparent loss of a cultural pastime. Let’s discuss the second.
But, get this: the devaluation of music has also devalued the listener. Maybe the problem with music isn’t technology. Maybe it’s us. Could it be that the music industry is sinking and fewer people are buying music – not only because people don’t want to pay for it, but because listening to music is now officially a lost art?
It’s important to note that during the Apple event where the U2 “gift” was announced, Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t use the word “listener.” Instead, he branded us as theUsers that we’ve become. We’ve been conditioned to use music in the same way that we use apps.
Before we get to the main issue at hand – the constructed dichotomy between “listeners” (good, thoughtful, participative) and “users” (callous, mechanical, consumptive) – I’d like to ask a semi-rhetorical question: has listening to pop music ever been an “art”? And pop is what we’re talking about. This isn’t Joshua Bell, or Yo-Yo Ma, or even John Williams. A thirty-second theme, built on and slightly varied over four minutes with a bridge. The score of any recent Doctor Who episode is bound to be more complex. This music, by its nature, is meant to be quickly consumed, perhaps digested. But it’s more like Chicken McNuggets than Cornish game hen. And, like those McNuggets, pop music is meant to provide quick, shallowly tasty satisfaction, not a transcendent “experience”. And speaking of experience…
We users want music to interface, not interfere, with the other elements of our “user experience” lifestyle. We customize our days down to the millisecond and megabyte – from the app that knows our coffee order to the algorithms that shuffle the random, faceless songs our music streaming services aggregate for us. User experience is itself an oxymoron: using and experiencing aren’t the same thing. Not until the digital age did the word “user ” suddenly apply to every action associated with personal devices, including one of our previously most sacred visceral and physical experiences – listening to music.
Yes, many of us lead very busy lives, and those lives are filled with things much more interesting or important than sitting around listening to music. But we like music…we like that little bit of processed snack-sound to augment our activities. It’s simple, so as not to distract us from the task at hand, but helpful for setting the appropriate energy. It’s a product, designed for consumption.
And this explanation of why “user experience” is an oxymoron is severely lacking. Using and experiencing are indeed different. But if you honestly believe they are so disparate, explain why a person would be willing to pay $50k for an Audi, but only $20k for a Chevy Cruze? It’s because the experience of using each vehicle matters. User experience…it’s a thing.
Back on topic, music, as is the consumption of any art form, can be intensely personal for the person who is moved by it. Wooten is clearly a lover not only of the art, but of the culture and experience that grew up around it in her youth. “We no longer feel the need to own music, collect it, cherish it, blast it in our bedrooms, drive it down country roads, hold it in our hands, flip the tape, change the CD, lift the arm of the needle and repeat.” The mistake she makes is projecting this love onto society, and calling this “one of our previously most sacred […] experiences.”
This mistaken understanding of the place of pop music in our cultural history leads her to lament our loss of interest. “We’ve forgotten how to discern, taste, choose,” she writes. But that leads me to another semi-rhetorical question: did “we” ever really know how to do those things? And is our consumption of music the indicator?
Certainly listeners a generation ago felt great pride in their musical tastes, and are abhorred at “Fancy” and “Wiggle Wiggle”. But the generation before that felt exactly the same about Lionel Richie and KISS. Or whoever else was popular at the time (I was unborn). And a couple generations before that, music was an entirely different animal. Which leads me to my point.
Times change. Some art forms that seemed important in one generation lose their significance entirely while others gain. But what matters is not the style or the media, but the individual piece, what it communicates, and how it’s received by those living. And honestly, when was the last time you heard a pop song that was a truly remarkable piece of art? I haven’t. In fact, in the Dallas Museum of Art, there is a painting of icebergs (aptly titled, “The Icebergs”, by Frederic Edwin Church) that is literally more moving than any pop song I have ever heard. The closest thing I can think of that was produced in my lifetime is the main theme to Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, I’m serious.
Pop music is not important. The loss of interest in “listening” to it is no cultural marker, no indication of failing interest in the arts. If anything, it might be seen as encouraging: we’re finally done trying to fool ourselves into believing that U2 makes “art”. Now we can begin to truly appreciate new and old forms of music, of art, with new eyes and ears.