Listen Harder

Recent commercial developments like iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media outlets have changed fundamentally the way that we consume music and even more how we share it with our friends. Even in the last few years, finding almost any song and listening to it for free (or nearly free) is just a matter of a Google search. Owning music has become somewhat superfluous when internet access means access to every song you could think of. Something as physical as a CD has become a rarity or even a nuisance, and owning vinyl LPs is both reviled by some as impractical and elitist and praised by others as real and concrete. I remember when I was younger, I would look through my dad’s music collection on tape and later on CDs and wonder what they said about my dad and what they said about me as his admiring son. I almost thought of our music collection as a family possession, a heritage. I don’t necessarily want to talk about how music defines who we are, but I am interested in how easily accessible music has cheapened the experience of listening to music. We listen to music as background music while we study, Pandora or Spotify radios play in the background of parties, and music is shared via Facebook. And, if listened to intently, music is ingested separately and individually. Music has become a distraction, a new white noise, mere entertainment. I think we’ve lost something.

Here’s a suggestion: gather a few friends who share at least some of your musical taste and invite them over. Juice them up with drinks and treats and make sure you’re uninterrupted. Then put on an album. Put on something that you’ve personally bought, something that you agonized over, something that excited you when you heard it or heard about it. Tell your friends why you’re excited and then push play and listen as hard as you can. Listen to those songs and see if there’s something different in the experience compared to your listening isolated with an iPod and white Apple headphones. Cheer at the exciting parts, play a little air guitar, tap your foot, do whatever you need to. Talk about the music with your friends; discuss what about it is different or what you like or what you hate, or how it makes you feel. This isn’t about recreating some counterculture movement of the sixties or about trying to entertain your friends in a novel way; this is about giving music its due, realizing how many hundreds of hours were put into making it, giving the music more than a background role, and putting it in context with other minds rather than listening subjectively. This is about liberating music from the entertainment and media industries that have hijacked an artistic form. This is about placing this ever-evolving art form at the level of art and enjoying it as art. Call it a social experiment, call it whatever you what, I just dare you give it a shot and then try to be satisfied with what the corporations have dictated as the better way to consume music.

Just so you know I’m not blowing smoke, last Saturday some friends and I gathered for such an experiment. The food? Bananas foster. The album? Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado. As our banana-caramel covered ice cream quickly turned into pools of sweet, sticky goop, we listened to some of the best that 1974 concept-album world had to offer. My dad had owned a couple ELO compilations, which had enjoyed seriously heavy rotation when I was young, and so I sat down with anticipation for an unfamiliar ELO album. As we listened, we passed around the album cover and the liner notes with the lyrics and occasionally would ask whoever had it to read the lyrics from a passage we couldn’t understand. We laughed at the pomposity of 1970s prog rock mixed with baroque classical orchestration, and then we paused to flip the record. At this point, one of my friends, almost complainingly, said, “I’m so mentally exhausted from that first half.” There it is, I thought, this experiment is taking an actual creative, mental effort to sustain this level of listening and enjoyment. We finished the album and then talked for a few minutes afterwards, summing up how amazing the album was and how much we enjoyed listening to it together. One of my friends argued for comparing ELO to more recent groups like Arcade Fire, which may be the modern version of ELO’s showy, massive band with thick orchestration and quirky concepts. We thought about that for awhile. It was late, we said our goodbyes, and as they left, every person that came enthusiastically suggested albums they wanted to listen to together.

The verdict? Try it.