When the first iPods hit shelves on October 23, 2001, the world (of music) was changed forever. It wasn’t that music hadn’t been portable before: Walkmen in the ’80s and CD players in the ’90s had introduced mobility. Revolution lied in the fact that portable music could now easily be played out of order. Mixtapes and mix-CDs had been around, but making either had never been as easy as it became to make a playlist for or on an iPod. By making playlists, users could defy the sequencing and context on whole albums that had once been preordained by record labels, realized by production companies and envisioned by artists.
Herein lies one of the major criticisms iPods have faced since the Naughts: some claim that music albums are meant to be experienced holistically, from start to finish, according to the factory settings. Whole albums heard with their tracks in original order have a certain aura, a certain gravitas, these folks say: by allowing users to create playlists where they can mix tracks from Rubber Soul with tracks from Abbey Road, iPods are robbing users of something special, and users in turn are making music something less special. By mixing tracks from Rubber Soul with tracks from Surfer Rosa and tracks from The Slim Shady Show–well, now you are just making a mess. You’re fragmenting aura, removing context, and letting tracks straggle and drown in a sea of nonreferentia. Or so the claims go.
“I used to listen to music strictly for the entire album, not for singles or for those few standout songs. … Discovering new sounds and melodies within an album even after a dozen listens is a magical experience for me,” writes blogger indiejones. But when indiejones’ girlfriend bought him an iPod, he became a different listener. “Most of the time I will still buy full albums on iTunes, but I won’t listen to them in their proper order. … [As a result,] if a song comes up [at] random on my purchased playlist I’ll listen to it, but I have no context for it.”
But is there a right or wrong way to listen to music? No, I say. If there is something dysfunctional or non-ideal about playlisting, this something has been happening long before iPods came on the scene–because listening to individual tracks outside of their programmed sequence, or alongside tracks made by different artists or from different albums, has been happening for decades in the form of radio and “Greatest Hits” albums, two validated forms of musical technology and expression.
All the Singles, Ladies
Comparisons are easy to make between music albums and other forms of media that are rarely experienced piecemeal. When people go to the movies, for example, it’s not often that they head out for fresh air during the scenes they don’t like. Likewise, few people intentionally miss the first and third acts of a play but show up for the second. And no author I can think of promotes chapters two, five, nineteen, and twenty-seven of a book, or encourages people to read the chapters in that order. Question, then, from the POV of an iPod critic: Why is it OK to cherry-pick favorites for playlists from twenty different albums, but not OK to slice and dice movies, plays and books into smaller pieces?
Answer: tracks on albums are not analogous to any other units of measurement in media.
There is no promotional circuit that does for movies, plays or books what radio does for music. Unlike scenes in a film, acts in a play or chapters in a book, tracks on an album are specifically marketed as individual entities: singles. This is because while scenes and acts and chapters are creatively devoted to furthering One Big Plot, nothing so grandiose stifles music albums. Albums house about a dozen plots that each resolve in three minutes (give or take a drum solo).
Even most concept albums are structured this way. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), the third-best selling album ever, is thematically about being human in the modern world: travel, consumerism, isolation and death color each track. But only three of the album’s 10 tracks were released as singles. Why would a band release singles to a circuit designed to play and promote singles if it didn’t want its album’s broad concept reduced to singles? Why would that band make separate tracks at all; why wouldn’t it produce hours of uninterrupted sound to go with a concept too important to be interrupted? It’s no mistake that Google Dictionary defines a playlist as “A list of recorded songs or pieces of music chosen to be broadcast on a radio show or by a particular radio station” [emphasis added]. Are the critics who decry album fragmentation via playlists on iPods also against radio–the oldest playlist in modern history?
Consider, moreover, the “Greatest Hits” albums that are comprised of radio singles. We must wonder how concerned artists are about the holistic integrity of individual albaums when they agree to produce new albums that smash together disparate pieces from older albums. Artists and their labels figure that “Greatest Hits” albums will sell because they know people like to hear their favorite songs back-to-back-to-back–context and wholeness be damned. These albums themselves are playlists. They contain tracks that have been shuffled, reimagined and decontextualized by the very people who gave them original sequence.
Is it really so bad, then, if we average Janes and Joes do the same thing?