July 27, 2008

Personal essay: The Great iPod Challenge of 2008 -- a mid-year report

Tiny music players and giant TVs; I love the future

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

(UPDATE, DECEMBER 2008: All four essays in this series are now available as a free downloadable eBook, for those who are interested.)

Regular readers will of course remember The Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge of 2008 that I issued to myself earlier this year, and urged other people to issue to themselves as well; that is, the challenge to get all my sad old '80s and '90s indie-rock off my little 1-gig iPod Shuffle as quickly as possible this year, and get it all replaced with brand-new music by contemporary bands I'd never heard of before. Think of it as a little middle-age challenge to myself, for reasons detailed a lot further in that original essay; a challenge to get re-acquainted again with a subject from my youth I had lost track of, and that I had been intimidated about getting involved with again precisely because it being such an intensive, youth-oriented subject, just like other middle-aged CCLaP readers undoubtedly feel about things like poetry open-mics, their city's art-gallery scene, the world of independent film festivals, etc. Being a member of the Creative Class myself (or the Bohemian Bourgeois, or the Renaissance Generation, or whatever the hell you want to call it), I have many of these kinds of issues affect my personal life just like yours, and I thought it'd be fun for example to track the results of one such experiment from my personal life here at the website, for fellow middle-agers feeling anxious and cowed about re-approaching such a subject themselves.

In fact, reading that original essay earlier today in preparation for writing this one, I realized that there was a major point to all this that I failed to originally get across; of the entire reason behind taking on such a challenge to begin with, and the relatively gentle goals I have for myself as a middle-ager merely traipsing across the surface of the subject. Because really, the whole reason this challenge came about in the first place was because of having this random experience in my life last year while out running errands one day, in the fall of 2007, where I kept flipping through songs on my iPod and flipping through songs, not able to find anything I was happy with, until finally just realizing -- "My God, am I sick of the music I currently own." I dismally realized, in fact, that at the tender age of 38, I had become that person I used to make fun of in my early twenties, that person completely out of touch with what was going on with the contemporary scene, whose entire beginning and end of knowledge about what people younger than me were listening to consisted of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and the like. I realized that my iPod had become this sad little cobwebby time capsule from another age, all REM country-rock-years and Pavement before they sucked, The Police before expensive reunion tours and The Smiths before Morrissey became a lounge singer.

It was never my goal to become highly intelligent again about the indie-rock scene, or even necessarily conversant except in perhaps the most general cocktail-conversation-with-NPR-weenies kind of way, certainly never to be in a position where I could impress someone else with my indie-rock knowledge; because frankly, here at the age of 39, I don't care that much about indie-rock anymore, and feel that it's a pursuit mostly for the young, for those who can afford all those concerts and can stay up that late to begin with, who don't mind the noise and the crowds and the pretentiousness and all the other things I myself can no longer stand. Instead, my goal has merely been to no longer be an idiot about the subject; to at the very least have an iPod full of new music I'm not completely sick of, to know at least a few musicians by name, to go from buying no albums in the last year to buying some albums. And really, I think this is the case for most people my age and in my position, those feeling frustrated about losing touch with an artistic community they used to be a part of; it's not that they want to take a leadership position within that community again nor be able to out-hipster anyone else, merely that they want to add just enough of it all again to have fun, to recapture that sense of play and random joy inherent in the process of discovering new artists and new projects.

That's why I had to laugh, after all, after hearing recently of this new software some group is working on these days, that is supposedly going to do nothing but check your iPod library for crap songs (filler tracks, conversation tracks, tracks you simply never listen to), and make sure that your device will skip over those songs whenever you have it on random-play mode. And I laughed, of course, because with my little 1-gig Shuffle I don't have the luxury of bad tracks in the first place; the entire device only holds around 150 songs altogether, once you subtract the space I need for the podcasts I listen to, which now that I have new songs coming into my life on a daily basis means that I am constantly having to judge on a case-by-case basis which will be included on my player, am constantly having to delete older songs to make space for newer ones. And this is a great thing, almost one of the most pleasurable experiences of the entire Great iPod Challenge, but I can just imagine the conversation that would ensue with a typical consumerist American concerning the subject...

ME: So instead of spending all that time and energy creating this smart filtering software for your iPod, why not just carefully pick and choose which songs you put on there in the first place?

CONSUMERIST AMERICAN: Because I have a 60-gig iPod, and it's easier for me to simply buy an entire CD and just dump the entire thing onto it.

ME: Okay; so why not sit down on a regular basis, listen through all these songs once they've been on there for a bit, and then manually delete the ones you don't want to listen to anymore?

CONSUMERIST AMERICAN: I don't have time to do that! What are you talking about? Do you have any idea how much work that would be?

And see, there's the key right there; to have fun with the arts, to really enjoy the process of discovering new artists and new projects, you need to stop thinking of such things as work and instead as a chance to play, an activity to do during your leisure time instead of the crap you're currently doing and barely enjoying at all. For example, since the Great iPod Challenge started up last January, I myself have had three such days like the one just described, Saturdays or Sundays where I sat down and devoted the entire afternoon to nothing else but listening through old songs and determining which should go, freeing up 20 to 30 percent of my device's entire memory by the time I was done (30 to 50 songs), to make way for all the new songs I'd be adding over that next month or two. But in my particular life, see, the only thing that Saturday afternoon was replacing was a Saturday afternoon of laying around on the couch, watching sad old re-runs of television shows I didn't particularly like in the first place; when looked at that way, I don't consider these times of cleaning out* my iPod as "work" at all, but rather a hell of a lot more fun than another Saturday afternoon of Cheetos, Stargate: Atlantis, and heavy sighs of soul-crushing ennui.

When we say to ourselves that we have "no extra time" in our lives, for most of us that's actually a subtle lie we tell ourselves; in actuality, it's more that we're spending the extra time we do have unwisely, being passive consumers instead of active engagers. This is the main point I wanted to make in the first place, by writing about my Great iPod Challenge here; that it's actually easier than you think to make the arts a semi-active part of your life again, or at least to understand the general contours again of what's happening in the "underground." For the last seven months of my life, I've spent around a half-hour each morning downloading and listening to all the latest MP3s at all the music websites I follow (see my original essay for specifics), then around an hour or two each weekend doing the same for the music podcasts I subscribe to, then one afternoon every couple of months doing a major cleaning of my iPod like mentioned; these actions and these actions alone have brought a whopping 480 new songs into my life that I've liked enough to keep, basically filling my Shuffle three times over and making the Great iPod Challenge a roaring success. And I bet when you stop and look at it, in reality most people have this kind of extra time in their lives that they could be devoting to such a thing, 15 to 30 minutes a day plus an hour or two on the weekends; granted, you'll never impress a 21-year-old with this kind of commitment, but why the hell do you care about impressing 21-year-olds? 21-year-olds are idiots. Remember when you were 21? Remember what a freaking idiot you were?

A random snippet of my current playlist, July 2008

So should I end today by throwing out some stats and lists at you, like every good indie-rocker should? Okay! Here, for example, are the latest ten musicians/bands I've downloaded to my iPod, all within the last week or two (July 2008)...

Emily Wells**
David Aussi
The Constantines

And then here are ten bands who have actually made it through all three major iPod cleanings I've had this year, bands that have been on my Shuffle now from four to six months and are still being highly enjoyed...

Boat People
Mexican Institute of Sound
The Heavy Circles
The Field
Pablo Sciuto

And then of this entire process, of the hundreds of bands I've downloaded and listened to since the year began, there have been roughly half a dozen now that I've grown to have a deep love for; these are the artists, for example, who I would see in concert if I were a younger and more cash-flush man, the musicians I would go out of my way to see on television if I heard they were making an upcoming appearance...

Bebel Gilberto**
Jens Lekman
Laura Veirs**
Radiohead (although to be truthful, I already loved Radiohead before this year; I just mean that their latest album In Rainbows is infreakingcredible, maybe the best they've ever made, even more astounding when you remember that they gave it away for free when it first came out to anyone who wanted a copy)

It's this last list, I think, that most profoundly shows that the Great iPod Challenge has been a success; half a dozen CD purchases in six months may seem piddling to most undergrad college DJs, but that's six more than I purchased in 2005, 2006 and 2007 combined. I consider this a great success as far as the challenge is concerned, and proves that just a little effort can produce a plethora of results when it comes to artistic subjects like these; it's a lesson I think can be applied in a whole lot of other situations, one I would encourage frustrated middle-agers like myself to apply to their own lives. And speaking of which, I'd love to hear your further thoughts on all this, as well as success stories from your own life; I encourage you to leave your own comments below, or to come by the website if you're reading this through RSS.

*And there is of course a final thing to understand about these "cleaning" days I have once every couple of months; that these afternoons consist not just of re-listening to songs and deleting certain older ones, but also looking up bands' websites online at the same time, checking out photos and videos, reading their biographies at Wikipedia, coming across interviews, basically learning things about them I didn't know before, which makes me understand and appreciate their music even better. This is ultimately what I mean by making such a thing an act of play instead of work; that instead of looking at it as a four-hour chore being forced on you on a Sunday afternoon, drudgingly going through old songs and cleaning up files, you should look at it as giving yourself permission to have four hours of unstructured fun on a Sunday afternoon, heading in whatever random direction online you feel like going, doing nothing but listening to music and watching videos and looking at photos, lollygagging over stupid pointless MySpace silliness as long as you want. And isn't that ultimately more fun than four hours of laying on your ass watching bad Canadian science-fiction television shows?

**Discovered through Starbucks! Will miracles never cease?! Say what you will about the company itself (Lord knows I'm not exactly a fan); someone there in the corporate headquarters, though, is making extremely good choices as to what musicians and songs to feature in their ongoing "iTunes Single of the Week" promotional campaign. Ah, to have that job, I'm telling you.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:53 PM, July 27, 2008. Filed under: Music |