Going over the polished zen aesthetic of Samsung’s new Pebble line of MP3 players yesterday, I found myself wanting one. This infuriated me. Shuffle-style players pander to debased musical tastes. It was just one more small, pretty audio player — a seductress, a siren — whispering in my ear, trying to get me to finally give up on that naive platonic ideal: the album. But the album’s already dead.
The Pebble, the iPod Shuffle… any of these low-capacity, display-less Flash devices that are flooding the market. The large sub-set of people who opt for these MP3 players over more full-featured models: they simply don’t care about albums. Rather, they prefer to listen to their songs randomly and with minimal control. They want song selected, shuffled and spurted out through their earphones. For them, these small, low-capacity MP3 players are like portable, DJ-less radio stations pandering to their tastes. They may not have a lot of control over what’s coming up next. They may never hear a full album being played. But they’ve always got a keychain full of music they like, at all times. Hell, they don’t even buy albums anymore: they just load up their music service of choice and buy the tracks they like.
This is all very alien to they way I experience music. Even if I could accept the lack of control, the addition of randomness to my music-listening experience, I can’t really accept listening to a song out of the context of the album to which it belongs. I believe that albums should be listened to as complete works, not just anthologies of musical vignettes. Albums should have their own beginning, middle and end: shuffling an album should shuffle its emotional tenor. For me, listening to a song at random without listening to the rest of the album is like reading a chapter randomly from a book. A song might be wonderful, but it is contextless out of its larger body.
I’d be the first to admit that it’s a way of looking at music that is completely out of touch with modern music. Who in their right mind looks at a Britney Spears album as an artistically-coherent work within its own right? It’s just a collection of singles slapped together with some glitter and PR. Most albums are just semi-random collections of songs crammed onto an optical disc: nothing less and only accidentally something more.
But even worse, my way of looking at albums would have been precious and delusional even a hundred years ago! Since the dawn of recorded music, albums were incidental to songs. In the early days of audio recording, albums weren’t much longer than a few minutes anyways, and usually only fit one or two songs per side. It is only as the maximum capacity on audio recordings increased that anyone started playing with the idea of an album as a meaningful artistic entity, in and of itself.
The same holds true for radio: radio is not a format that encourages the playing of full albums, and never has been. And even if you drag me kicking and screaming a few hundred years in the past, I’d find myself looking ridiculous. Most of the music of the world before the dawning of the 20th century did not come in the form of symphonies: it came in the form of short songs. In fact, my way of thinking about albums probably dates back no later than the 1950′s Cool Movement, and for most of the history of recorded mucic has only subscribed to be jazz musicians and musical avant gardists.
Still, I sputter and rage at myself. Buying a single catchy song off of iTunes. Purchasing an adorable novelty MP3 player off of Amazon. I’m so tempted: it means I’m giving up on the actual existence of the record album. I’m sacrificing the ludicrous, pretentious self-delusion that there is a musical entity distinct from the song, that an “album” is something more than the means of physical delivery and its packaging.
And then I start thinking to myself, “Actually, I bet one of those Pebbles would be pretty good for podcasts. I don’t care what order those come down the pipe.” Maybe there’s a compromise to be had here, after all.