This scene – a young person bored, with attention and time to spare, looking for music beyond the obvious and finding that music quite unexpectedly, then devouring it alone and in an almost embarrassingly profound way disappearing into that music and into the vision of the artist who created it – this scene no longer really exists.
…Spotify’s exponential growth and powerful machine-learning algorithms have changed the way music is consumed. Playlists, rather than albums are king; music is tailored to mood: chill, romance, focus; or to activity: party, workout, sleep. Pelly argues that this change has made music less diverse, less interesting and more like elevator muzak. Listening to music is not an aesthetic experience in itself (think Morrissey listening to Horses back in 1975) but something pre-programmed, inoffensive, ambient; an accompaniment to other activities. Streaming services have made entertainment feel like another form of work, another task, like answering emails, to be completed on a laptop or a smartphone.
Blockbuster movies, TV shows, and now music — I fear that before long, Mr. Lloyd will run out of predictable targets for his curmudgeonly rants. Judging by this trajectory, we can expect that by the time summer arrives, our critic will produce a column noting the signs of cultural decline in whatever fashions the kids are wearing these days.
DJ Nobody’s newest record was released last Friday. I downloaded it early that morning and took it with me on a 500-mile road trip. When I got home, I wrote to a music-loving friend and tipped her to listen to it. “Very nice, very sleepy,” she said. “How on earth did you stay awake while listening to this and driving?” True, it is a very mellow record, but nonetheless, it seems that any music that interests me acts as a stimulant on my brain. Even subdued, languid melodies can capture my attention and allow me to expatiate at length. I do most of my best thinking and writing while “high” on a new song. When I was probably three or four years old, my favorite song was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” I remember hearing it one day in the car and demanding that my mom play it again, as she tried to explain to me that she couldn’t make a radio station do that. Apparently I was already well-acquainted with the magic of rewinding cassette tapes to hear songs again. Once digital music brought the “repeat” option into existence, we had reached the pinnacle of technological achievement as far as I was concerned. I’ve been known to spend hours entranced by a song, sometimes discovering, to my surprise, that I listened to it more than a hundred times in a row without tiring of it. I understand some people snort Ritalin or Adderall to achieve that type of intense concentration and absorption; I seem to only need the right combination of melody and rhythm.
Anyway, I’ve been a fan of DJ Nobody for over a decade now. How did I discover him? By going to Last.fm one day and doing a search for artists similar to the Chemical Brothers. His song “Spin the Bright Sun Rose” came up and I was instantly enthralled. His collaboration with Niki Randa on Blank Blue: Western Water Music Vol. II was, amazingly, even better. I’m not sure, beyond some superficial similarities, how much his music resembles that of the Chemical Brothers, but I’m still grateful to whichever algorithm pointed me in that direction. Why would my love of his albums be more “real” if I had first heard a song on the radio instead of a streaming service? What is more “authentic” about picking up an album because of the cover art, as opposed to a “similar artist” recommendation? What does it even mean to say that this artist is “like” that one? What Procrustean violence there is in that common word! How many Janus-faced ambiguities there are in trying to meaningfully compare one “similar” song with another! How reductive, how insulting to imagine that there could ever be an algorithmic padlock so perfectly designed as to imprison us in our solipsism forever! Like a children’s game of Telephone, even a search for simple terms like “psychedelic indie rock” or “big beat electronica” can produce some unexpected results. What kind of, dare I say, narcissist thinks that his generation was the last one with the interiority or the technological means to truly appreciate music?
Descartes infamously thought that animals, lacking souls, could not feel pain or emotion, and dismissed their whimpers and cries as equivalent to the sproings and clangs of faulty machinery (his student, Malebranche, put theory into action by kicking a pregnant dog as a demonstration). I feel pity for these modern Cartesians who coldly dissect mere “popular” music into its constituent parts, finding no “soul” among its studio wizardry and formulaic songcraft. Well, ’twas ever thus, Sturgeon’s Law. There have always been hack performers and unsophisticated groundlings. Devoted listeners, like devoted readers, have always been a tiny minority. Fortunately, despite the failings of both artists and audiences, there is still an unquantifiable space where the magic effect of music is produced by some strange alchemy. The sense of certainty in being a doomsayer is comforting in its own perverse way, I suppose, but I prefer to make the effort to keep my ears open and be ready for surprises.