evaporated music

jon pareles on the state of music listening now

The ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and cranking up a hi-fi home stereo disappeared — when? Perhaps with the cassette and the Walkman, the ancestor of the portable MP3 player. Now even the thought of having a separate music player is a little quaint. The smartphone will do it all — just adequately, but convenience trumps quality. Baby boomers who remember the transistor radio, that formerly miniature marvel that now looks and feels like a brick compared to current MP3 players, can experience again the sound of an inadequate speaker squeezing out a beloved song.


Songs have become, for lack of a better word, trivial: not through any less effort from the best musicians, but through the unexpected combination of a nearly infinite supply, constant availability, suboptimum sound quality and the intangibility I’ve always thought I would welcome.

Now everyone, not just a critic, can feel awash in music, with an infinitude of choices immediately at hand. But each of those choices is a diminished thing; attainable without effort, disposable without a second thought, just another icon in a folder on a pocket-size screen with pocket-sized sound. The tricky part, more now than ever, is to make any new release feel like an occasion: to give a song more impact than a single droplet out of the cloud. This presents a challenge to culturally ambitious musicians: before they can be larger than life, they have to be larger than the LCD screen.


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June 2011
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