Digital music's latest crime: Too easy

Essayist Steve Almond pines for his pre-iTunes youth. The modern listening experience, he writes is too convenient

By Andrew Leonard
March 27, 2010 2:37AM (UTC)
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Steve Almond longs for the halcyon days of his youth, when the act of placing a turntable needle on a platter of vinyl was a holy sacrament.

I really miss the fact that listening to music used to be a concerted sonic and emotional event, rather than the backing track to some flashing screen. It was more inconvenient, to be sure. But for me, this inconvenience was part of the whole point.

I liked that I could only listen to my albums on a turntable in the living room. I liked yearning for my favorite records. I can still remember spending the entire day at school counting the minutes until I could get home to listen to the transcendent power chords of Styx's "Paradise Theater."

I even liked that there was a whole process involved before you got to the songs. You had to thumb through your collection, put the record on the turntable and then set the needle down with the utmost care.

Which leads to the inevitable slam on digital music:

Look, there's no question that technology has made music cheaper and more accessible. But I wonder if it hasn't been made less sacred. The ease with which we can hear any song at any moment we want no matter where we are (and often for free) has diluted the very act of listening, rendering it just another channel on our ever-expanding dial of distractions.


A charitable interpretation of this thesis would be to dismiss it as merely a purposeful troll designed to drum up Internet publicity for Almond's forthcoming book, "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life." But I'm not feeling too charitable at the moment, so I feel compelled to note that is one of the silliest critiques of digital music I have ever encountered (and that list is not short.)


If digital music cheapens the experience once derived from playing a record on a turntable, then must we not acknowledge that recorded music is veritable blasphemy against the much richer "sonic and emotional" catharsis gained from actually hearing music played live? Hell, just being a passive listener, even to a live performance, is a kind of degradation. Want a sacred musical experience? Eat some mushrooms, grab the bongos, and rock out! You want inconvenience? Pick up a guitar!

OK -- It's Friday afternoon, and I really don't feel like being mean. So let me share something a little more positive, because, you know, one of the most amazingly cool things about the Internet and digital music is how easy it is to share some music you like with someone else, to expose them to something new that might blow their mind or make them happy or in some way richen and deepen their experience of the world.

This morning, a colleague of mine posted on Facebook a YouTube video of an elementary school chorus in Staten Island rehearsing the song "Under the Milky Way" by The Church. Now granted, "Under the Milky Way" is no Paradise Theater, but I defy anyone to listen to these kids sing without feeling moved, without feeling that the universe is just a better place because these kids (and their clearly quite extraordinary director) exist. Watch boundaries of class, race and musical genre melt away. Groove on kids enjoying the act of singing together.


When I was teenager in the 1970s, spending my afternoons doing exactly what Steve Almond liked to do, my chances for getting exposed to a slice of heaven like that delivered by the PS22 Chorus were severely limited. I wake up every day thankful at the wonders of modern easy listening. Why mourn the lost sacraments of youth? Cherish what's staring you in the face!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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