Crafting the Soundtracks of Our Lives

The world’s jaw dropped when Apple announced the end of iTunes as we have known […]

Ian Olson / 7.8.19

The world’s jaw dropped when Apple announced the end of iTunes as we have known it these past eighteen years. For some it was simply a surprising move — splitting up Music, TV, and Podcasts across three app services was unexpected but sensible enough — but for a noisome contingent (and who can know the numbers) this amounted to the digital equivalent of the Greenland Ice Sheet collapsing into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mostly it seems to me iTunes’ demise was inevitable as, over the years, it accreted more features until it finally seized up within its own senseless congestion. Originally envisaged as the interface of users’ Apple-orientated digital hub, iTunes simply became too bloated to remain effective. Add to this perennial syncing issues within that hub, such that trying to add an episode of a show or an audiobook to one device could mean clearing all the apps on your devices or random selections in your library!

No one, and I mean no one, is making the case that iTunes represents an Everest-like peak in the development of music technology or even that it was ever all that sleek or efficient. The benefits appeared to be two. First, that any music in your iTunes library was music you personally owned: no legal contingencies could arise which would lead to a sudden void in your library as certain songs and albums suddenly became unavailable. And second, the lauded smart playlist feature which allows users to set criteria for randomized playlists. This is the point regarding which I’m hearing the most fear and loathing as it’s about to become a thing of the past. This has elicited borderline panic from some folks, and while I empathize as much as I am able, I can’t quite identify with this concern.

I’ve never put a smart playlist to use because I’ve never been interested in algorithmically derived mixes, even if its building blocks were songs I owned. I want to know a human hand and care gave rise to the stream of tunes I’m committing any portion of my life to. This goes for radio just as much as it does a service like Spotify: I have no time for commodified soullessness, whether it sounds like Whitesnake or Taylor Swift. (Don’t @ me, go write your own article.) I get it, good radio stations exist, but not in southern Wisconsin. And Spotify? The lists made for me are doing an uncommonly good job if I even slightly enjoy 4 out of 10 songs. Sure, I’ve discovered a couple fantastic songs this way (I will forever shout to the rafters how Reptar’s “Stuck In My Id” appeared in my Discover Weekly at the beginning of summer 2017 and my life hasn’t been the same since), but on the whole its track record comes up short.

All in all I’ve had more of an exasperated cooperation approach to iTunes: my involvement with it was always tilted towards “What else am I supposed to do?” I belatedly came to iTunes out of frustration with the constraints of the technologies I had been loyal to for years. Time was when my daily, five-mile walk was accompanied by a painstakingly selected cadre of CDs specifically assembled for that trek. Each instance of my daily constitutional was a new episode in the ever-unfolding drama of the Life of Ian, and so each instance required a new soundtrack to fit the new developments in that saga.

I’ve been an advocate for physically possessing my music since I bought my first cassette — the Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite, I’ll have you know. For one thing, my obsessive-compulsiveness propelled me towards a completism that felt like it couldn’t rest until I owned the complete discography of every band I loved. (That’s a story for another day, though.) Secondly, my appreciation at its innermost beating center is for the total aesthetic object music represents; not merely the sounds of a recording, but the artwork, the lyric sheets, the entire presentation of an album as a tangible statement and encapsulation. But thirdly, and just as important as the second, it was the only way to guarantee I had permanent access to the soundtrack of my life. The music that mattered most, that enriched my life such that it contributed to my becoming myself, I couldn’t bear the thought of being without.

And this is why I went on my way for years dragging along CDs everywhere I went, however inconvenient it may have been. And there’s really no gentler way to describe lugging around seven CDs on an afternoon walk than “inconvenient.” It was dumb, really, for however much I theoretically liked walking in the rain (this coincided with my hopeless romantic, late-80s-John Cusack-worshiping phase) I didn’t want my Discman to short out, nor did I derive much enjoyment from switching out discs during a downpour. Few pictures of existential despair can be as poignant as fifteen year old Ian hopelessly howling at the thundering sky as the booklet for London Calling becomes soaking wet and succumbs to ruin.

But I persisted, inconveniences be damned. And I kept on persisting until the time came in my mid-twenties when jogging became something that I should have been doing for years already. But this is the point at which resistance to industry alterations (I can’t bring myself to say “advancements” without a paragraph of critical commentary) smashed into the brick wall of technological limitations. A Discman, of course, has moving parts, which meant that every millimeter of motion I undertook as I ran resulted in skipping. Egregiously obtrusive skipping at that, the sort that could not or would not right itself unless I reduced my pace to a brisk walk.

And so I was introduced to the iPod. My sister-in-law gifted me one and I set myself to translating my physical collection to the digitally disembodied confines of this dinky contraption with obnoxious clicking sounds. I grew accustomed to its interface and the sounds of its operation, and I did appreciate how I could engage normal human activities and continue listening uninterruptedly to my tunes. But this mode of music consumption never overrode or tempted me to repent of my impulse to collect and admire the total artifact to which the songs I loved belonged.

Perhaps it’s telling that there’s no way around describing the means by which we purchase and listen to our music as “consumption.” This cuts into my self-image of painfully hip lone wolf, making my decisions only when my radically singular I desires to. Perhaps there never was a time when we, the music-purchasing populace, had all that much say regarding the whence and whither, much less the cost and the choice of medium of the music we listened to. The industry has always determined what formats will be prevalent and therefore how much we will have to expend to purchase the music we have been exposed to through the outlets with which they have contracted.

This isn’t to say the music consumer has no agency whatsoever, only that it is a heavily qualified agency, one that is primarily reflexive. For our purchasing options are not unlimited, and our late modern consumer impulses cannot opt for that which is not made available to it. We, in our time and our place, are conditioned to want, but nothing specifically. The idea is that that will be supplied by the industry in the forms it promulgates. Thankfully, because the economy of grace in Christ insinuates itself even within the bestial machinery of capitalist economics, genuinely good art comes to be, despite these numb, sclerotic hands at the very throat of the process.

In his paper, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular,'” Stuart Hall has characterized the dynamic at work in popular culture as “the double movement between containment and resistance.” There are some genuine ways to resist the industry’s pervasive impositions upon the culture, but typically they’re more difficult to discover and acquire. An outstanding example is the demise of the 8-track tape and the ascendance of the cassette. The 8-track was the objectively superior format, but was more expensive and more unwieldy. Moreover, formatting changes from LP to 8-track meant there were often absurd fade-out transitions between portions of the same song due to its having been split up into two tracks on the 8-track cartridge. Cassettes, by comparison, were smaller, easily portable, and blanks could record up to ninety minutes of music. Oh, and you could rewind! A pretty simple feature but a real bummer to lack.

I became acquainted with this technology through apprenticeship to my father, and many dubs and mixtapes were made to accompany our road trips. One tradition I enjoyed for which there is no real digital equivalent is pairing two records together and dubbing one on one side of the tape. By stitching them together suggestions of continuity and progression seemed to pose and answer themselves in unique ways these records couldn’t on their own. In what ways does Band on the Run carry Magical Mystery Tour to completion? How is Van Halen II the answer to Machine Head? How is the tone and aura of Harvest so strikingly consistent with Wish You Were Here? Who could’ve intended such a thing?

This education deepened my appreciation for what music is and does. Though it augmented our travels cross-country it was never for me a background filler, just present enough to eliminate silence but disposable enough to be safely ignored. Music added to the trip, made the trip more than what it could be by itself. After a while I was making mixes of my own for walking to and from school, and around the same time compact discs decisively hedged out the technology upon which I had cut my teeth, I began making mixes for my friends. I wanted to share what I loved, and part of that was the hope that I could play a part in opening someone’s ears and heart to the same sounds that had so profoundly moved me.

For me, I always deeply enjoyed the arcane pathways and rituals which unlocked music I hadn’t heard before, whether it was the senior in my summer school class who introduced me to Violent Femmes, or, even better, the invocation of bands in hushed tones by artists I already revered. I loved poring over interviews with musicians in which they would sound off on artists they had just discovered or were drawing influence from while working on material for their new album, whatever the case might have been. Exchanges like these were like flashes of lightning briefly illuminating the night-saturated wilderness, revealing the shamans I looked to for life mid-ritual.

Because the music they wrote and recorded was so essential to me, to the maintenance of some semblance of life and flourishing amidst all the garbage that is par for the course with being a teenager in the American empire. Music helped me cope with letdowns and betrayals and accompanied celebration of my and my friends’ successes, however microscopic they might have been. It even summoned celebration into existence at those times the sheer, inarticulate thrill of being alive bubbled to the surface of my consciousness, unbidden by any objective event that had transpired.

These things demanded documentation, and my facility with the practices of the analog age equipped me to absorb the good and the bad of what surrounded us and focus it into an hour of music that could incite our indignation and comfort us and sonically capture the crests of our happiness, sometimes all at once. An algorithm cannot come close to approximating the love that gives shape to a dynamic mix borne out of our having to make the best of a world poised between Fall and consummation.

Things haven’t changed very much; I still enjoy crafting mixes to augment my commutes to work, and our family trips, and I love gifting them to friends. I feel like I’m giving more of myself to them when I do so, in a way, like I’ve abstracted a quantum of me and my experiences and my passions through this exchangeable medium. But I also construct mixes in a hopeful anticipation of a wish coming true. I have two summer mixes I’ve completed which house my dream of a summer filled with fun the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed in a long, long time.

We all have heard the warnings of placing too much weight on our ambitions for having the best summer ever. These are wise, and we should heed them. But dialectically I think we need to hold on to the hope that maybe this one will be the best one ever. If our moments and our days are caught up within the domain of the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, then it seems to me we err in ruling out the possibility of his summoning for us a summer to remember for years to come.

I find that oftentimes the mix is the closest encapsulation of that impossible ideal of Summer that we never arrive at. But even in simply listening, in dowsing our actual, empirical summer with the strains of the mix, it seems to me that that impossible figment of our collective imagination begins an absorption into the present. The music can make present the desire that regularly evades us. By grace the mix mediates the referent of my desire for the ultimate Summer to my actual summer, planting seeds of fantasticity which bloom into moments of heart-swelling joy that close the gap between the two in a way that all my elaborate planning and spending and hoping cannot.

Spotify, for all its faults, enables me to do this and proliferate it. Yes, overall I still prefer to own music that I truly appreciate. I want to support artists and I want to participate in the physicality of the artifacts they create. And there’s an irreplaceable delight I take in watching my seven-year-old take an LP out of its sleeve and put it on the turntable. But I also relish the ability to devise playlists I can easily pass on to persons I do not see face-to-face on a monthly (much less daily) basis. I know it’s not exactly the same as the old days, but I know the motivation and the effort I put into it is just as the same as it ever was.

Because if all I have to work with is all that I have to work with then my only hope is in trying to use it well, trying to not be taken by propaganda or uncritically accepting the “given” that’s doled out for me to consume. And so, if grace is a part of the picture, maybe even Spotify, an instrument of soulless corporate interests, can be baptized and used well. For all the parties I won’t be throwing, for all the hang out sessions I can’t initiate with friends scattered throughout the country, for all the night drives I will and won’t be taking, for all the living I’ll be maximally investing in, I hope the mixes I make and distribute fuel our joy, knit us all together, and make us sonically contiguous, even if only for a little while.

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5 responses to “Crafting the Soundtracks of Our Lives”

  1. Ian, this is so lovely.

  2. Ian says:

    And here’s the final installment of the Summer Triumvirate, a supplemental volume to the above linked two!

  3. Brett says:

    The contingent was noxious, harmful, highly obnoxious or objectionable?

    • Ian says:

      I’m not sure I’d apply every last descriptor in the word cloud you offered, but yes, I detected a just right-of-the-median level of unpleasantness in a great number of people who were most upset at a scale that seemed to outstrip the significance of what was going down and subsequently i.e. immediately responding As Swiftly and As Indignant As Possible to the Outrage. But you, Brett, might just not like Apple’s decision and it seems dumbly inconvenient for you. I think that’s something different!

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