The Anti-Socialization of Music

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Todd Leopold recently wrote an op-ed piece on CNN called The Death of the Home Stereo. It delivers everything you’d expect from such a dramatic title.  I wouldn’t suggest reading it.  Only giving mention as I felt obligated since this topic will be quite similar.

The rise in popularity of personal digital audio devices makes sense.  As a whole, we’ve always loved radio as it gives us instant access to the songs that our culture deems worthy of listening.  We don’t need to spend much time making decisions, we don’t have anything as a real barrier to access.  Just about every car has had a radio for decades, they’re cheap to get for the home or to carry with you.

An iPod1 is the next logical progression of this.  You can use Pandora or shuffled playlists to get that instant access to curated music.  You can also pick an individual song you’re obsessing over and listen to it on repeat.

Beyond listening habits, we’re moving more and more toward 100% digital music (there’s plenty of it already), so listening on a digital medium also makes sense.  Just as a record is great for being able to reproduce every little breath of a trumpeter, I suppose an iPod is great for reproducing 30Hz bass tracks in the latest Ke$ha song.  I guess?

Certainly there is some room for concern with this movement from an audio standpoint.  While we’ve always had a disproportionate focus on “the hit single,” it’s easy to imagine that with an à la carte listening device becoming our primary source of music that this will get worse.  If our only means of hearing music is designed around playing single tracks, what’s the point of making an album?  And if you do, is there any sense in putting the effort in to making a coherent collection of songs?  Rather than trying to make one song tie into the next, I’d think you’d be better off just trying to cram a bunch of 3 minute hits together.

But popular music has always been this way to some extent.  What’s new is we’re now going from our primary listening devices being social ones, meant to fill a room with sound; to anti-social ones, meant to fill your ears alone.

earbuds-on-busThis is a strange trend.

Music has always been consumed socially.  Obviously dating back to the days before recording methods existed and you had to congregate with people to hear things live.  Now we primarily use music to tune out the outside world.  This is best exemplified with the ear bud phenomenon.  These cheap plastic orbs that Apple convinced us to shove into our ear canals are everywhere.  Every office is filled with workers wearing them.  Each day, I see at least one person driving while wearing them.  Kids are probably the worst offenders, as it’s commonplace to see teens wearing them while walking around with friends or at dinner with family.  Yep, we’ve gotten to the point where we need to shut out the people we’re willingly associating with.

I can trace roots of the fad in popular culture back to the pre-game rituals of NBA players, often seen sitting alone listening to whatever music gets them pumped up.  They maybe got this habit from being in the gym, where we usually use music to encourage a workout rhythm.  But the lineage gets kind of shaky from there.

Why is this happening?

We’re less concerned about our privacy than ever before thanks to expansion of technology (South Park, as usual, did a great job of illustrating how we feel about privacy vs how we act).  We want everyone to know everything we’re doing at all times, but yet we shut ourselves off for huge portions of the day with music.  Is this some sort of backlash against the rabid social-ization of society?  Is this an introvert thing?  Or do we just not realize or care how rude2 this seems in many cases?

I grew up in a pre-iPod world, so maybe someone a little younger can better explain.  Maybe it’s because younger people have grown up in a world where your primary source of music doesn’t contain speakers.  I get that, but the whole aspect of shutting yourself off when in the company of others, I don’t get.  If you’d rather listen to music than be with your friends, then don’t hang out with your friends.  Or, here’s a novel idea, get a dock or Sonos or boom box and listen to music WITH your friends.

  1. I think that as a society, we’re beyond the need to explain this, but just in case – I’m saying “iPod” in reference to anything portable that plays digital music.  iPod, iPhone, Android Phone, MP3 player, even a Zune.
  2. Or dangerous, in the case of people operating a car/bike with headphones on