Editor’s Note: Alison, our regular Tuesday blogger is off today. Instead, we offer you a post from guest blogger, Caitlin Welsh.
The Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey, the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan: when I lived in Morocco from 2004-2006, friends sent me these and other albums to keep me from falling into American cultural oblivion while I was away. The ones they sent me became part of the soundtrack of my life in Morocco, along with the staples I brought with me, like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and, of course, the sounds of my everyday: Nancy Agram’s Coca-Cola commercials, bootlegged Berber music, and calls to prayer from sunrise to night.
Once I returned to the States – culturally disoriented despite my friends’ best efforts, but grateful for their music anyway! – I continued to follow the bands they introduced me to while I was gone. I loved the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible nearly as much as Funeral. And then The Suburbs came out with its “I used to write letters, I used to sign my name…” and “It seems strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive…”
For real? An Arcade Fire album about how our lives are different now from when we were young, like, we send email instead of letters? I wasn’t impressed. The motifs of The Suburbs seemed obvious and banal to me; not emotionally evocative like the first or politically charged like the second, just… unremarkable.
Five years separate my “DC Part I” from my “DC Part II,” Part I when I lived here post-college, pre-Morocco and Part II from when I moved here post-grad school to the present. I make comparisons between DC Part I and DC Part II – the city and my life here – all the time.
In DC Part I, my life was just as full as it is now but without constant use of the ubiquitous accoutrements of our generation, smart phones and tablets and their ilk, and the constant feed of media they bring us. DC Part II is most distinct from DC Part I in the dizzying pace of communication, and the rate at which information is churned out and re-churned every day.
The more I compare the way I lived my life in DC Part I to the way I live it now, the more I realize that the Arcade Fire were on to something in The Suburbs. In the five short years between my DC Part I and DC Part II, the ways that I receive, digest, and communicate information changed, and extraordinarily so.
Lately, I realize, it’s the way that I experience music itself that has changed the most. I played Funeral front to back when I lived in Morocco, as I did with most albums I listened to and loved up until that point, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At first, certain songs stuck out and I’d simply wade through the inferior ones until I got to the good ones; then I’d hear something I liked – a lyric, a chord – in an in-between song and end up loving it too, and figuring out how all the songs fit together and spoke to one another in the whole, coherent work the album was.
These days, I don’t fall in love with a select few albums as much as I become obsessed with discovering the season’s best bands and hearing their new music as soon as I can. I Shazam songs, Spotify the artists I like, enjoy them for a turn, and then move on. I listen to NPR’s ‘All Songs Considered,’ sometimes linger with the featured artists and sometimes jump to newer episodes highlighting different ones.
A few weeks ago, with the sound of Beach House’s new release in the background, my brother commented, “I listen to albums like this for as long as NPR runs them on ‘First Listen,’ then I continue to the next good albums.” He said, “I have such an avalanche of music on my plate at all times that I become desensitized to it.”
That is exactly why this matters to me: Because having nearly unlimited access to good music makes me experience music differently; I’ve begun to exchange the quality of my experience for the quantity of good music I can get my virtual hands on every day.
Our favorite albums inspire us, help us celebrate, and help us mourn; our favorite artists put words to our emotions; music helps explain us to ourselves. For me, none of this happens unless I spend time with an album. If I skip from top pick to top pick, music doesn’t have the same effect on me. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was on constant replay during my first summer in the District, and it followed me to Morocco, where “War on War” became a personal anthem and “Poor Places” reminded me of the beauty of where I lived. I wonder: If YHF were released today, would I experience it as I did ten years ago, or would I give it a listen and skip to Rolling Stone’s next top pick of 2002?
In the end, I think, the Arcade Fire was right: it is remarkable that the way we do simple things is changing apace. What that means for music is that the amount of high quality albums available to us is unprecedented. This can be wonderful – oh, I dream of bumping into Bob Boilen at 9:30 Club and thanking him for introducing me to so many new and amazing artists! – but daunting at the same time.
So: To listen to a ton of good albums, or just a handful? This isn’t the worst dilemma to be confronted with, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to me. I want the Jukebox of My Life to be populated not with hot single tracks but with albums that I know like family, whose relevance to my life endures as time goes on.
I would have ended on this note, were it not for a conversation with two musician friends last week. With an expertly compiled playlist in the background, they argued about the virtues of this new musical landscape we find ourselves in. Friend One is a hold-out for the album as an art form; he bemoans that music lovers are losing our attention spans (and that young music lovers have shorter ones), preferring single tracks to whole albums, and moving quickly from artist to artist. Friend Two was concerned that she was developing musical ADD herself, but acknowledged that the drastic increase in the availability of music could in itself be a good thing.
Friend Two noted that the way we access, share, and listen to music will always change. “And thank God for that,” she said, “because change inspires creation.” At the very least, as Regina Spektor notes in an interview on NPR Music, free, unlimited access to books, film, and music informs musicians, helping especially those without the means to buy music and who wouldn’t be able to hear it otherwise.
The Arcade Fire hopes that “something pure can last” in the midst of transition. I think that in the end, the music of our age will be better off for these changes, either by embracing or resisting them. I question not so much the quality of music in the future as the quality of my experience with that music; after all, it’s not the abundance of music that’s the problem, it’s my own, increasing proclivity to be distracted.
A decade from now, when I look back at Summer 2012, I wonder what will define this time in my life: the music that composed the soundtrack of the season, or something else? Maybe I’ll remember this summer’s albums. Or perhaps I’ll look back on this as an era of unprecedented change that bred unanticipated artistry, defining an experience as pure and lasting as it was unexpected.