Saturday, May 28, 2011

I Whip My Hair Back and Forth

Sony now has only one CD pressing plant in the United States.  Sales of music CDs have fallen by half since the peak in 2000.  Frankly, I am surprised that CD sales aren’t even lower than that, given the explosion of digital music.  I am facing the fact that the compact disc, once a new, shiny symbol of modern affluence for serious audiophiles everywhere, is limping towards extinction.  It is just another victim of progress in my life’s musical journey, and it makes me wonder what musical legacy my children will have.

Music and the marketing of music have provided mileposts along the highway of my life.  As a parent, I am now watching my children experience the sights and sounds that will write their life’s musical roadside signs, and I am trying to appreciate the memories they are gathering, without dismissing the entire experience as trite and destructive to their young minds.  It’s not easy. 

 For me, the journey began with the harmless 45 RPM record, and its’ A and B side tracks.  Having 4 older siblings, these discs were in abundance around the house, and I could slap them into the family Close and Play record player for a quick listen, or stack them 10 high on the spindle and let them play one after another.  I would spend hours after school in the late 60s and early 70s jamming to Vanity Fair’s Hitchin’ A Ride, or Sugarloaf’s Green Eyed Lady, or the one-hit wonder Zager and Evans haunting post-apocalyptic In the Year 2525.  Yes, I still know most of the words, or at least what I imagined the lyrics to be.  No long term psychological damage done, although that is open to debate by those who know me best. 

Back then, great music meant 3 minutes, 30 seconds tops, and everyone knew that a nickel on the arm above the needle would prevent skips over deep scratches.  Ah, sweet simplicity, sweet innocence.  Back then, CCR’s Lookin’ Out my Back Door was like a nursery rhyme (and not the tale of a John Fogarty LSD trip gone bad), and Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Da Vida, all 17+ minutes of it, was not going to lead to failing grades and a life of crime.  It might lead to long hair, but that was correctable with a pair of shears.  (Full disclosure: The drum solo might cause permanent hearing loss, particularly if you put your ear up against the speaker.)

As my tastes expanded, so did my appreciation for the longer form rock experience, the album.  The concept albums of the 1970s demanded a complete listen, from one end to the other, or at a minimum, a full 22 minute album side of 4-5 tracks.  The music of The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys filled the house.  You had to listen through the whole album side because skipping songs one at a time was too labor intensive.  The exercise of standing up, walking over to the turntable, lifting the arm gently, tapping it slightly into position, aiming it above the groove you wanted, and lowering it manually without damaging the vinyl was like a stressful game of Operation (kids, ask your parents).  Consequently, you listened to songs that you initially didn’t like, but they grew on you.  You were better for the experience. 

Albums told a story through the selections of music, but also through the cover art, the liner notes, the lyric sheets, and free band posters.  Who could forget the novelty of the working zipper on Sticky Fingers, or the hours spent decoding the hidden messages about Paul’s demise on the cover of Sgt. Peppers?  Today’s digital music is more aurally precise, but it comes with fewer and fewer tangible, durable pieces of memorabilia, if any.  Downloading bits of data can never replace the thrill of unfolding the cover of a 3 album set for the first time and studying the mind-bending art inside.   

We’ve gone from albums of ten songs, to CDs (that allow you to skip songs easily via remote control), to individual digital songs, to ring tones.  My kids are missing out on….something.  I guess the death of the long form was inevitable.  Novels became short stories, then magazines (Reader’s Digest), then blogs, then tweets, then texts, then just consonants.  It seems as I get older, everything is getting shorter, more compact and smaller (well, not everything – yet anyway).  And that’s always bad, isn’t it?

So what has replaced the richness of the musical experience that the album offered me as a young man?  So what is Lucy, at age 6, my representative of the next generation, listening to?

This is the musical legacy of her youth.  Video imagery that distracts from the banality of the sound.  At least she also enjoys watching The Three Stooges on You Tube, so all is not lost.  She’s getting some culture.

The days are getting longer, and nights getting shorter.  Summers that used to last forever are over in moments.  What I really want back is my youth, and the album soundtracks that made youth so special. 

Well you run and you run to catch up to the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath
And one day closer…

Ah, let’s stay positive.  Some things are better now than in the ‘good ol’ days’.  iPods are better, but thankfully, the experience is enhanced because of my proper grounding in the classics.

I should be more concerned about the message in the music than the delivery medium, according to University of Kentucky psychologist Neil De Wall.  The Week reported that “he and his colleagues analyzed the lyrics of Billboard Hot 100 songs from the past three decades and found a steady increase in self-centeredness and hostility towards others.”  Their research noted a decrease in the word ‘love’, and a greater use of the words “I” and “me” over “we” and “us”.

Can’t say I’m surprised by that finding.  It has been well documented that as we become more interconnected and interdependent through technology, we simultaneously are becoming more isolated and more self-absorbed.  It’s the great paradox of the modern era.   

I could blame the music, or I could blame society as a whole.  Or I could remember that I grew up OK in spite of listening to Devo, Blondie, and the Ramones.  Ramones’ classics Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment and I Wanna Be Sedated didn’t define me, and hopefully Lady Gaga’s Born This Way won’t define my children.

Headphones on.  I’ll try to drown out the thought of Lucy writing a similar piece to this in the year 2055 about how modern mid-21st century music cannot compare to the depth and quality of the music represented by Willow Smith singing, I Whip My Hair Back and Forth in 2011.  Hopefully, that song won’t define her, and she’ll write her own musical legacy, byte by byte.

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