I remember my first time.
I was 9 years old and me and my family were living in North Miami after Hurricane Andrew had turned half the city into a third world country.
Sitting on the floor channel surfing in my room, I happened to pause on MTV.
My relationship with MTV up to this point was largely nonexistent; I knew about it, of course, and part of me knew already that music itself touched a certain part of my mind that nothing else did, and therefore watching music videos seemed logical. I just hadn’t caught on yet. MTV was something my older cousins watched, but me? I was a cartoon guy, through and through.
Makes sense though, considering it was a cartoon that made me pause that night. Which shocked me just as much as it would any other 9 year old in my position.
I mean…a cartoon? On MTV? Doesn’t MTV stand for Music Television? Don’t they only show music videos? (in 2014, irony at its finest)
This cartoon seemed odd though: there was nothing really going on except a crudely drawn animation of two guys with really big heads sitting on a couch watching TV, saying stuff I didn’t understand and giggling a lot.
I watched it for a moment to see if anything interesting was going to happen, at which point the view switched to what the two guys were watching on TV…which just so happened to be a music video (touché, MTV…touché).
A small voice told me to change the channel then, see if Nickelodeon had anything better on. But the fact that it was a cartoon kept my finger off the remote (even if MTV had tricked me into watching a random music video, it was still a cartoon dammit).
It took me a while to figure out what these random collection of images were: a bunch of teenagers jumping around; a janitor dancing with a broom; bored-looking cheerleaders shaking pompoms; and a stringy-haired blonde guy screaming at the TV screen.
And yet, there was something about the video that caught me. Something about the guitar effects, the pure emotion in his voice, the erratic smashing of the drums, the two idiots giggling in the background.
This meant something. This was something people cared about, something I found myself suddenly caring about.
At the end of the video, the blonde guy put his face in the camera, mouth open, scream fading out. And at the bottom of the screen it read:Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit
I wouldn’t see that video in its entirety that night. But I would become a fan of Beavis and Butthead.
I would also soon expand from Beavis and Butthead to other MTV shows strictly reserved for showing music videos without the inane commentary. Through those shows, I would come in contact with an entire genre, songs like Tool’s “Sober”, Bush’s “Machinehead”, and Soundgarden’s “Blackhole Sun” (last video scared the shit out of me the first time I saw it).
And little by little I would come to realize that—despite what seemed to be the social norms for other black kids in my neighborhood, running around throwing up Wu-tang symbols and spitting 2Pac lyrics—I was a huge fan of rock music.
This isn’t to say I didn’t like hip hop. In fact, my older cousins had a habit of schooling me on the intricacies and superiority of hip hop every time I saw them, ever since I was old enough to listen to them for more than two minutes without getting bored and walking away.
In fact, it was around the time of my rock renaissance that my parents found, listened to, were appalled by, and subsequently confiscated my first cassette tape, a gift from my cousin Che; not a rock album, but rapper Mystikal’s debut record, Mind of Mystikal.
And yet I would still save my weekly allowance, walk into a record store whenever I had the chance, and buy whatever was the newest album out that people at school and on MTV were deeming the “Next Great Thing”—everything from Jay-Z’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life to Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all to Green Day’s Nimrod to Master P’s Da Last Don (kinda want my money back on that one).
I’d even go so far as to hide the CD in the over-sized waist of the baggy, sagging jeans I’d started wearing in middle school, so my parents wouldn’t find it before I could get it safely stashed away in my bedroom closet.
And I’d relish those moments throughout middle school and the beginning of high school. Relish them…yet dread them at the same time. Because the waiting to go buy that new album—the waiting to take it home and find that quiet spot where I could listen to it in peace without having to catch hell for the noise and obscene lyrics—sucked.
But it was all worth it once I got that initial listen.
Nothing—nothing—was better than the first time I’d press play.
And God I wanted to have that feeling more often. Who wouldn’t? By time I was a teenager, me and my boys were MTV (and to an equal extent, BET) fiends. And I hated that I couldn’t have all the music that I saw on TV right there in my room with me. Hated that there wasn’t a way for me to access all of these songs whenever I wanted. Hated having to listen to the radio with my finger over the record button on the tape deck, waiting for that new track to come around again and hoping that the DJ stopped talking before it started so I could get a clean copy on my ever-present blank tape.
I hated having to wait.
I mean, seriously, couldn’t somebody just figure out a way for me—for us—to get all the music we wanted without having to get up and go to the store and pay all that damn money for it?
There was a time when listening to music was a way of life.
B-boys/B-girls slapped down huge sheets of cardboard on concrete plains next to boomboxes and spent hours contorting their bodies and perfecting their moves.
Teenagers stock-piled milk cartons full of vinyl records in their bedrooms, donning giant headphones and playing their favorite tracks until the needle broke or the record wore out. Or both.
Record stores held lines out the door, filled with people waiting for the release of their favorite artist’s newest album.
Even in the decline of the vinyl age, cassettes and CDs—like the 12 inch records that preceded them—were fragile. Easily damaged. Requiring a bit of TLC for some musical longevity.
So people cherished them, kept them safe, protected.
Back then, a concert—any concert—was the ultimate music mecca, the equivalent of watching your favorite TV show then waking up on the Hollywood set where it was filmed.
This was before cell phones of course. Before video camera apps and tweeting and Facebook, when the only thing you could do when you were at a concert was…uh…watch the fucking concert (the impending mass handicapping of humanity through the monopoly that is technology is a whole other issue, explained perfectly right here by Louis CK, because that’s just one of the things that make him awesome).
But at some point, that approach to musical enjoyment became too much for people to endure.
I don’t know if it was boredom, or just the demands of a society that had become too fast-paced to continue worshipping a medium that prided itself on finesse and patience.
Whatever the reason, we as a society lashed out. We demanded more from our artists, and from the people who enabled them. We told them we wanted what we wanted, and we wanted it now.
And in true capitalist fashion, the industry listened, not realizing that we ourselves didn’t really know what we wanted.
Because if we thought about it, we would have known that what we wanted wasn’t more of the music itself; what we wanted was more of the feeling that music gave us.
Which are two completely different things.
In the New Yorker article “Why Making Technology Easier to Use Isn’t Always Good”, Tim Wu states: “ when things are too easy, as a species we may become like unchallenged schoolchildren, sullen and perpetually dissatisfied.”
The other day, I was sitting in my living room listening to Spotify on my computer, and I realized that song after song had been playing for almost two hours and I hadn’t actually listened to one of them.
This was a playlist on my account that I had named “High School Rock Shit”, filled with songs released between ’97 and ’02—songs I would have killed to have at my disposal back then—and yet I wasn’t paying attention.
To put it simply: I was bored.
128 tracks, 8 hours worth of quality music, and I was bored.
And honestly? I wasn’t even surprised. I mean, who wouldn’t get bored? All that music was just…there. Like a significant other with no job.
Sad, I know (queue the violins).
It’s not just me though. It’s basic human psychology.
And you can see it at work in almost any situation, musical or not (though for the purposes of this already extensive article, I’ll stick to music).
Imagine the titular “party chick” at a club, jumping around to house music, wearing whatever outfit she peeped on Pinterest then went out and bought that day, sipping whatever low calorie drink she read about on somebody’s health blog, screaming at her friends to come take selfies with her in the bathroom on her iPhone (I just threw up in my mouth a little bit).
Imagine that girl—the byproduct of technology in 2014—hears her favorite song come banging through the club speakers.
Then imagine the inevitable reaction: “Oh my God! I love this song!”
At which point she drags her friends onto the dance floor and proceeds to flail around with the rest of the flailing individuals (I know I’m painting this situation in a negative light, but it’s funnier for me that way so…you know…fuck off).
Break down the biology of that reaction though and it begs the question: do you really think that elation she feels in that moment—or feels as she’s recovering from her weekend hangover the next Monday, driving home from work and having the same manic reaction when the same song pops up on whatever radio station she’s listening to—can even be challenged by the feeling someone gets from opening up the Spotify app on their phone, typing in the name of that song, pressing play, and just…listening to it?
It’s basic human nature. Prolonged satisfaction spurs something in the human mind, like a rising mercury thermometer. The longer we let the heat of desire sit, the hotter we get, and the bigger the payload once we get that release (sexual innuendo aside, you know I speak the truth).
Which is the essential problem with the Spotify situation, with the combination of the internet and music as a whole: we’ve essentially taken something that speaks to the human need for connection, and disconnected it from humanity.
Nobody even tries to utilize their ability to feel true desire in this modern day and age anymore.
And why would they? Everything’s right there. Just toss that desire synapse to the side, brother, and take what you want right now.
Yet—as Wu continues in his article—evolution has proven time and again that when we stop using something regularly, we eventually lose the ability to ever use it in the future:
“By the logic of biological atrophy, our unused skills and capacities tend to melt away, like the tail of an ape. It may sound overly dramatic, but the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.”
Imagine a future filled with a bunch of humans who have no capacity to desire any sensory stimuli, because everything’s been put right there in front of them since birth. Theirs at the touch of a button.
Then imagine what music’s going to sound like in that society.
What anything will look, sound, taste, smell, or feel like.
Then tell me whether or not you want to live in that fucking place.
I remember this other first time too.
It was high school, sophomore year. Couple of us sitting in my friend’s bedroom playing video games when one guy turned around and gave us all his typical sheepish grin, the grin all teenage boys have when they’ve got a hold of something they shouldn’t.
He pointed at his computer screen, a brand new desktop that his parents had bought him; state of the art back then, something with a lot of megahertz and a gig or two of memory (it was ‘99, man).
“You guys wanna see something?” he asked.
Uh. Of course we did.
One click, and suddenly there was a naked girl on the screen, doing unspeakably horrific and amazing things to some guy. We nearly choked.
I mean…I’d seen porn before. But right there on the computer? Without a credit card and a paid account?
Just like that?
“How the hell?” I asked.
“This program, man,” he said. “It’s called Napster.”
And that, ladies and gentleman, is how I was introduced to Napster.
For those of you who are too young (or too old) to remember, Napster was the first mainstream file sharing program (the equivalent of torrent sharing now). And before it spit in the face of music copyrights—and had those same copyrights come back at it with an axe and blowtorch—it was every teenagers gateway to debauchery.
Pretty soon though—as is customary in the case of teenagers and limitless endeavors—we decided to test the parameters of this file-sharing world.
Sitting in that same room again soon after the porn revelation, playing video games with the same friends, the same guy turned to us with that same sheepish grin on his face.
“You guys wanna see something?” he asked, and it was like deja vu.
Only this time, when he turned to his computer and clicked the mouse, instead of a woman in a compromising position appearing, the screen lit up with the wavy lines of a visual equalizer. And through the speakers, an official-sounding voice stating:
Right there on his computer, the entire debut album by this new rapper Eminem that everybody had been making a really big deal about.
It was a huge paradigm shift for me in that moment. Up until then, I had thought of music simply as this ethereal entity; something that could be heard and enjoyed either at random (for free) in the form of radio and MTV, or whenever you wanted in the form of spending-a-shitload-of-money-on-CDs.
Yet here we all were, listening to an album I’d been wanting to hear ever since “My Name Is” came out.
For free. In all its obscenity-laced glory.
The group of us listened to Slim Shady LP that entire night, and promptly declared Eminem the greatest thing that had happened to hip hop since the last great thing that had happened to hip hop (I don’t fucking know what it was, I was out of my mind half the time in high school anyways, quit badgering me).
Then our friend told us about his CD burner, and shit really got real.
A day later—after roughly ten hours spent burning roughly five CD’s (again: late 90’s/early 2000’s technology)—we all had our very own copies of Slim Shady. For free.
I cannot emphasize the “free” part enough.
The floodgates had opened. I’d finally gotten the unlimited access I’d been wishing for since the first time I walked into a record store and realized I barely had enough money for one record and was going to have to make a choice.
Music was mine.
Of course, I know. I’m part of the problem.
All of us were, these teenagers with newfound access to high speed internet and this thing called piracy that—up until then—we’d thought only applied to people wearing eye patches.
But come on…you really think we knew what we were doing?
You really think we could have foreseen that the prevalence of piracy would eventually shove the music industry off a cliff and ultimately impact—negatively—the way we enjoyed our music?
No. We didn’t think of that shit. And even if we did, we were teenagers. We would’ve said fuck it and done it anyways.
The fact remains, though, that Spotify, Pandora, iTunes radio and the like are all a result of the corner Napster and p2p file sharing pushed the music conglomerates into at the beginning of the new millennium.
A notable byproduct of this though—aside from the drop in artist’s album sales—was a decline in the number of artists signed to major record labels. And a byproduct of the byproduct was that aspiring artists began looking for other mediums to get their music out, inevitably turning to the technology that had limited their major label chances in the first place (the amount of irony that occurs in everyday life is sickening).
Which could have been a good thing, and has been in some situations (anybody who’s ever had the chance to listen to Childish Gambino or The Weeknd’s early internet-released mixtapes can attest to that).
Artistic freedom and the ability to reach the masses on your own can sometimes produce the purest music out there: tracks devoid of market demographic influence and the opinions of a bunch of disconnected millionaires whose vocabulary is limited to yays and nays.
But there was also a reason some people got signed to labels while others didn’t, and a lot of it had to do with actual talent. Or lack thereof.
In the digital age though, everybody and anybody—with the right marketing and a viral video or two—can become a best-selling artist. For about five minutes. Until the next Twitter/Instagram/Vine/Facebook/Youtube sensation comes along.
Quality material is no longer the focus of an aspiring musical persona.
Name brand is.
(cough) 2 Chainz (cough cough).
Sorry, damn lingering cold.
It’s a point Stefan Goldmann makes in his Little White Earbuds article, when he states that “what used to be done by professional enthusiasts now becomes the domain of the artists — turning them into designer, PR dude and distributor. It all subtracts from the time spent actually creating music.”
Which has created a cyclical effect, where there’s now so much accessible music out there—with so much of it being crappy quality—that artists are essentially competing with everybody, having to create rushed music in an attempt to flood the already-flooded market with their material. This all gets thrown at the average consumer, who becomes so overloaded with options they’re forced to transform into the apathetic, distrustful, I-only-listen-to-people-I-know individuals we all are now.
Gone are the days when somebody could walk into a record store, put on some headphones, hear something they’ve never heard before, and give it a chance.
Gone are the days when a band could realistically hope that a live performance in a seedy basement bar would give them their big break.
Gone are the days when music was about the music.
As Mike Spies states in his blog article about Spotify (also at the New Yorker, it’s an admittedly shorter and better written article than this one that essentially says the same thing I’m saying here so you should totally check it out and stop reading this piece of shit…THAT WAS A JOKE!), “We seem to have created an environment in which wonderful music, newly discovered, is difficult to treasure.”
And even when we are introduced to that new artist with the inarguable ability to move us (I’m talking to you Adele), we’re still met with the original dilemma of the digital age:
Adele is just…there now. Waiting. Never even trying to play hard to get. Just lying out in the open, at the intersection of our finger and keyboard/touch screen.
Sure “Someone Like You” could make a five year old shed tears for lost love.
But whose really got time for emotion when there’s 2,000 other songs on their playlist?
That personal attachment to music hasn’t just disappeared. It’s died.
And everybody was too busy tweeting to give it a proper burial.
I remember another moment I had during my sophomore year in high school. I was at my friend’s house in my neighborhood. His stepsister was a huge rock chick, which was part of the reason we’d become close over the years since her dad and his mom had gotten married.
One day, I heard her listening to something that caught my ear. I’d never heard it before, but it sounded weird and interesting (which essentially describes my taste in…everything). Not the normal Korn/Marilyn Manson/Slipknot-esque type of shit I’d typically hear coming from her room, but something altogether new. Almost…electric.
Knocking on her bedroom door, I waited until she answered, the hallway outside her room filling with noise as the music hit me full force: record scratches and pounding bass drums and screeching guitars all accentuated by a man screaming in a way that seemed both demented and melodic.
“What’s up?” she said.
“Who is that?” I said.
She glanced at her stereo then looked back at me, smiling knowingly.
“Linkin Park,” she said. “You haven’t heard it?”
No I hadn’t. So we lied on the floor in her room and listened to the entire album from beginning to end right there (and yes, that’s all we did…her parents were home, so not like anything else was going to happen. Get your minds out the gutter).
At this point I hadn’t yet figured out how to get Napster on the computer at my parent’s house without them finding out (shared family computers blow), so I decided that this Linkin Park album would be the next CD I bought. It was Sunday though, so I had to wait until the next weekend to go to the record store.
I’m not going to try and convince you that I walked around school all week thinking about nothing but Linkin Park, but best believe the memory of that day was there, in my mind. I even started watching MTV again just to see the video for “One Step Closer”, their first single (at this point I’d taken a hiatus from MTV-viewership, due to the prevalence of boy bands and Britney Spears…though watching Britney wasn’t a horrible experience, as long as the TV was on mute).
The next weekend, I specifically planned an evening at Sunset Place with my boys. We were there to watch a movie, but the moment we were out of the car I ran to Virgin Records Superstore (since closed, of course) where I promptly bought Linkin Park’s CD and spent the rest of the night in a state of super-elation at the thought that it was now mine.
I still remember that next Monday, rushing home from school to sit in the empty house—parents at work, sister at my aunt’s—and blast that album in my bedroom, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling and thinking that every single one of those songs had been written about and for me (teenage angst at its finest, Holden Caulfield would’ve been proud. Or not. Whatever.)
Most important point: I still remember that day today. I was sixteen.
I’m thirty years old now, and yet I still remember a single moment during a single day in a time of my life when every day was a huge deal.
When I can barely remember what I ate this morning (I think a Pop-Tart, who knows).
Because of the musical experience. Because I had to wait, which made it that much sweeter.
That would never happen now. And not just because I’m 30. It’s because that same situation of knocking on this girl’s door to hear a song I’d never heard before and ask her who it was and receive an honest answer would now be followed by me pulling out my phone, opening the Spotify app, typing in “Linkin Park”, and pressing play.
“Thanks,” I’d say. Then I’d walk away.
Sure the end result is the same. I mean, I got the damn music, didn’t I?
But then again—when you really sit down and think about it—it is so absolutely not the same fucking thing.
As Spies says in his article “It’s like going to a large foreign country for a week, and, instead of getting the feel for one glorious city, trying to hit all the sites so you can prove you saw them.”
And who the hell really wants to see Europe in a day?
Maybe you. But definitely not me.
In the words of my homey Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
The effect of this accessibility has essentially jaded us to the effect music—and art in general—is intended to have. Take the New York street artist above for instance (watch the video, you won’t regret it).
Nobody can tell me that the final product of that video is the most important part of that transaction.
You’re not paying for that painting, you’re paying to watch the artist paint the painting, to watch them create something out of nothing, then hand it to you and tell you:
“This is yours.”
That transaction—and the feeling of belonging, of importance that accompanies it—is what is lost in this digital age of artistic delivery. And the long term results are manifesting themselves even now in the utter lack of patience displayed by every human being with a cell phone and a laptop.
Spies says it best when he states that he’s “trying to describe an intricate process, crucial to forming a lasting, meaningful relationship with a piece of art. Because if I was going to buy a CD…I had to eke out some time, and even pray for a little luck…make a conscious decision that I was going to take my chances. And once that was decided, there was still the journey to the shop, and the browsing, and, depending on the outcome, either the very long, or very giddy, return home. And even then, of course, there was still the possibility that the album would suck.”
That chance—that potential for either utter disappointment or that mind-blown feeling we all desire when it comes to music—is scarce in the 21st century.
As the Welsh Wombat explains: “By becoming accessible, music has effectively become too disposable; the days of listening to an album over and over, allowing it to ‘grow on you’ are pretty much gone.”
Driving home the other night, I was pondering a conversation me and a friend had recently had about our favorite music from the 90’s (a discussion punctuated by a lot of “the shit they come out with nowadays is nothing compared to this” comments) and I remembered a song he’d reminded me of: Planet Soul’s “Set U Free.”
When I was in middle school, Power 96—a local Miami radio station—had gone into a brief electronic music phase (one which they’ve reentered these past few years, only now they call it house music, though the same press-play-then-do-as-many-drugs-as-possible-then-jump-around-the-dance-floor characteristics apply) and I found myself—as a result of being a Power 96 listener—drawn to a lot of mid-90’s electronic artists, namely groups like Planet Soul, The Prodigy, Moby, and The Chemical Brothers, among others (my favorite CD for like a week around this time was called Killer Cuts, the soundtrack to the fighting video game Killer Instinct, which featured nothing but electronic music)
Reminiscing about this in the car, I decided to revisit this period in my life right there, headed home on 152nd street. Which was easy, considering I have an iPhone and a monthly subscription to Spotify.
Just a quick flick of the thumb, couple of typed letters, and suddenly “Set U Free” was pumping through the subwoofers in my trunk.
I was instantly filled with the rushing sensation of nostalgia, a feeling that lasted the entire way home (side note: getting a little tired of the increasing amount of nostalgic moments I’m experiencing; I’m not old enough for this shit goddammit!).
Yet, by time I parked my car and walked inside my house, the song was done and I’d lost interest in hearing anything else from that period almost two decades in my past.
It’s not like I didn’t like the song, or it reminded me of something bad. In fact, when I think of “Set U Free”, I remember two distinct moments in my life: lying in bed one night with the radio on, speaker of my boombox next to my ear so I could listen to the song without waking my parents (for some reason I didn’t have headphones on me at the time); and another moment at Hot Wheels skating rink, holding the hand of the girl I was dating (as much as you can be “dating” at 13) as we cruised around the circle for the couples skate with “Set U Free” playing in the background.
Both pleasant memories. No reason for me to dismiss it that way.
Which got me wondering: why?
Why did I lose interest so quickly in something I hadn’t listened to in so long, that so obviously had positive memories associated with it?
The answer came quickly: because I have other shit to listen to.
As of this writing, I have roughly 125 playlists queued on my Spotify account, each of them housing anywhere from 5 to 200 songs. And I’m talking everything: The Beatles, 2 Chainz, Avicii, Drake, The Eagles, Bruno Mars, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Rihanna, Korn, Biggie, Lynrd Skynrd, Jay-Z, Calvin Harris, Queen…the list literally goes on.
And yet, what I’ve got queued in my library is nothing compared to the amount of music Spotify actually has to offer. As we speak, I just reminded myself about The Prodigy and am currently creating a playlist with all of their albums. Back in a minute…
And on occasion, I look at this massive database of music, spanning generations and centuries, and I wish I could go back in time to that dejected teenage boy, sitting there holding his dozen or so CDs and watching TRL, wishing he could have all the music in the world.
Then I remember how much I loved those twelve fucking CDs. How I’d damn near kill for those twelve fucking CDs.
And I realize I haven’t felt like that about music in a while.
Editorial note: As of the publishing of this article, I now have 130 playlists on Spotify. Thanks go to: The Prodigy, Pharrell, Sisqo, Rob Dougan, and Kid Ink for helping me reach that milestone.