Paranoid Android: Is Music the Opiate of the iPod-Owning Masses?

[12 May 2010]

By Dann Gaymer

From the moment the college kids moodily dragged their feet through the door the whole atmosphere of the shop changed. They instantly began leafing through the racks upon racks of records, erratically hopping from one genre to another, crisscrossing a bizarre smattering of styles that Jim could not quite understand as he leaned over his counter, watching them with curiosity. From the moment they shambled in he already decided they were most likely looking for records to tuck under their arms in order complete their outfits, as opposed to searching for records to add to their collection. They roamed aimlessly from De la Soul, to Duran Duran, from Nick Drake to the Dead Kennedys.

The high definition speakers suspended above were blasting Black Sabbath, yet the adolescent customers seemed oblivious to the hard guitar riffs mingling with messages of doom, death and destruction. Each was rendered completely oblivious by the sub-standard white plastic earphones jammed into their ears, which led to a snaking white cable that traveled down over their buttoned down plaid shirts and nauseating neon t-shirts which bore bizarre slogans such as “Well Mexico” and “Spazcore”, finally anchoring into little white slabs of plastic half hidden in the pockets of their overly tight denim jeans, which were a little too short to meet their outsized sneakers looming below.

Jim leaned back against the heavy wooden counter, hands clasped behind his head. On the other side of his shop stood Keith, a regular who was also eyeing the newcomers. Keith was middle aged dude with terrible teeth and sporting—of course—a stringy pony tail. He once owned a guitar shop next door, but sold it a little under year ago to an estate agency. Semi-retired, he now played in function bands, his brief moments in the spotlight playing solos to “High Ho Silver Lining” or else a smattering of Queen riffs, on his fire engine red Fender Stratocaster which nearly succumbed to far too many neck, body and pick up changes. Yet for the most part he did what he’d always done; teach guitar, except now from a small room in his house, now that his store was gone.

Keith made a weekly visit to Jim’s shop on the pretense of seeing what new records were in, but they both really knew it was for the occasional company. Jim didn’t mind. Keith always brought him a cup of coffee.

The thudding bass drum and droning fuzz laden riffs of “Iron Man” rained down, Ozzy Osborne’s wails following the bludgeoning riff. Jim turned the volume up a notch, but it still came nowhere close to breaking the sonic defenses of his young customers. Feeling confident that their words would be hidden beneath all the noise Jim and Keith each began to drop casual observations to one another,

“You going to a fancy dress party mate?”

“Are my eyes playing tricks on me or did a giant packet of fruit Mentos just walk in?”

Eventually two of the kids shuffled over to the counter with records clutched in their hands, handing them over to Jim, whilst staring at their shoes, their Flock of Seagulls-like haircuts hiding the upper half of their faces. One boy set Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and a Blue Monday reissue on the counter; the other a copy of Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. Their earphones were not removed for the transaction.

“That’ll be eight pounds for these two and three pounds from you please sir.” Jim tried to stifle a grin as he laid on the formalities.

Hands went into pockets and a five pound note and a small pile of one pound coins appeared on the counter. Jim scooped up the cash while the third boy simply lurked around by the door, gazing at the racks of records while seemingly waiting for flies to drift into his gaping maw. All the while he ran his foot back and forth over the carpet. Jim caught his eye and shot him a stone cold stare while stuffing the records in two separate white bags with ‘Black Coffee / Black Vinyl’ printed on the side with a logo of a coffee mug spilling over an LP. The boy stopped attempting to bald the carpet and simply stared at his shoes

Jim looked back to the other two masses of hair slouching before him and attempted something along the lines of a smile and said,
“Cheers lads! Come by again, alright?”

The cash register pinged open. Something was mumbled in response as the boys shuffled out in a line, pushing through the door, the buzzer sounding.

With the boys out of the shop and their money safely into the cash register, Jim almost instantly began openly slagging them off, safe in the knowledge that legions of record store owners had done the same the moment he had departed from their establishment as an adolescent record buyer.

“They probably don’t even have player, just gonna stick the records on their walls next to their My Chemical Romance posters!”

Keith chuckled. “Yeah right, next to a signed portrait of The Killers or some other pop band! Teenage wasteland all right…”

“Still”, Jim said in a slightly more serious tone, “It’s good they’re taking an interest, somebody’s got to listen to these relics, after all”

Keith looked up with a certain twinkle in his eye. “Too right, I’m surprised they even care about LP’s when they’re all plugged into little mood boxes”

“Yeah r-” Jim frowned. “Plugged into what?”

“Mood boxes, those iPods. Their little mood altering devices…” Keith replied in a matter-of-fact way.

“Iron Man” ended and the almost instantly the punk infused chugging opening riff of “Symptom of the Universe” followed.

“What?” Jim said

“Y’know, those iPods, they’re mood alterers”
Jim gave a blank stare in reply.
“Nah, they are! They’re like devices that, like, alter your mood!” Keith insisted.
Jim’s brow furrowed, “Keith, saying the words in a different order doesn’t make much difference, you’re still not making sense…”

“They’re mood alterers, just like in Blade Runner.”

Jim cocked his head to one side as if to suggest he didn’t hear the last part.
“Blade run-” , Keith began rather weakly

“What the hell are you going on about? They didn’t have iPods in Blade Runner, that film is over twenty years old.”

Keith suddenly looked agitated.“No, no, I know that, they didn’t in the film. But in the book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, they had these mood altering machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, they’re the same as iPods” 

Jim frowned. He could not image Keith opening any book that did not contain guitar tablature.

“How do you figure iPods are “mood alterers” then?” Jim asked with a prevalent helping of sarcasm, making quote-like gestures.

“Alright, I’ll tell you how…”

At that instant Jim realized this was in fact the moment Keith had been waiting for, the opportune moment to unveil his bullshit,

“... in the book they have this machine called a mood organ, like I’ve already said…”

“Yeah…”
“And it’s this machine that lets you choose your emotions . You, like, dial in a number and you choose happy, sad, and angry, whatever you want. The book doesn’t tell you how it works but that’s what it does, anyway.”

“OK.”
“Now think about how a song can change your mood; put on a Buzzcocks record and you feel pumped up; put on a Peter Tosh LP and straight away you feel relaxed”

Jim bobbed his head, as if rattling the ideas around to see how they felt. Keith continued, gesturing to the racks of records in the shop.

“Now consider all these, ‘relics’,” Keith also made the quote marks gesture, “You can’t carry them around, so back when we were kids this was all we had. You couldn’t listen to them all the time. It was either at home, at your mate’s, in a shop like this, or maybe played on a jukebox in a pub, but the rest of the time you didn’t have a choice in what sounds you were listening to”

Jim nodded his head encouragingly.

“And then there’s the format…”

Keith walked over to a crate full of 45 singles and picked out what may or may not have been a single by The Troggs.

“Back then when people made singles they were just little doses of rock and pop, but when you get to a little later on, with the Beatles, Led Zep and the Floyd, you started getting all those longer albums where all the music fits into one piece.”

“Soundscaping,” Jim mumbled.

Keith nodded as he wandered across the room and fished out a handy repress of Dark Side of the Moon from the front of a box of LP’s, labeled ‘prog’.

Marveling at the record in his hands Keith spoke slowly now, “A theme, a mood going through the whole thing, from the band to us. Always the same songs, the same order, and the same groove everyday you put the record on. Yeah you could skip to different songs but flipping the record and mucking about with the needle was a pain in the ass…”

“So you always listened to the songs in the same little chunks,” Jim chimed in, his arms now crossed.

“Exactly!” ,said Keith, getting excited, “There was always that one groove the artist wanted you to experience and the LP format restricted you within that so well! Even with Walkman, when you could carry music around, you were always stuck with the one groove, the one the band wanted.”

“A-ha! What about mix tapes?“Jim chimed in quickly.

Keith sucked his teeth nosily as he nodded slowly, contemplating this rebuttal.

“Well yeah, sure you could choose your own songs and sit there bunging them on a tape, but not many people bothered doing that too often.”

It was Jim’s turn to suck his teeth while nodding in agreement, internally gloating that he was part of the elite cadre who had bothered to sit up all night making mix tapes of his obscure pop and rock songs as opposed to cultivating a social life.

“The point is,” Keith continued, “even carrying around a player, be it LP, tape, CD, even… what was it? Minidisc! Or radio for that matter… you were never one-hundred percent in control of the selection. You had to choose one groove and stick with it all the way through. With the radio the mix was always different but out of your hands. On a mix tape no matter how wide the selection was, it was always the same tracks in the same order. But with an iPod…”

Keith grinned and raised one callus laden index finger, battered and abused from years of fret board heroics, slowly wiggling it from side to side.

“With an iPod you’ve all got all those different singles, albums, mixes, all those different grooves in one little box. Better yet you can chop and change, skipping from track to track and vibe to vibe: Chill out with some of Neil Young’s folk stuff or liven up with a bit of Iron Maiden or Toto!”

Jim winced in response to the mention of the name Toto as Keith walked around the racks, continuing his lecture, “It doesn’t matter what groove the bands had in there originally, because these days the kids pull them apart; they choose the grooves they want, any time, anywhere. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around you because you have a Pandora’s Box full of thousands of different sounds you can plug into. Block out the world, make your own little sonic bubble.”

Keith motioned to the door with its dusty glass, “Think of those kids who were just in here, you’re blasting out Black Sabbath and we’re getting into it, feeling the riffs, but those kids are each listening to whatever they want, completely cut off from us.”

Jim shrugged.

“If that’s not the future mate,” Keith continued, “tell me what is.”

Jim looked at Keith in silence for a moment and then began to speak slowly, “So you’re suggesting because kids can choose any song they want anytime they can fix their mood to whatever they want just like a machine in an old sci-fi novel…”

Keith looked like he was ready to skip around the shop, “Yessss, exactly!”
Jim shook his head. “That’s bollocks”

Keith deflated as Jim began launching into his counter attack,

“You can’t just assume that music is the only thing that changes your mood. And iPods have that shuffle function anyway, you don’t have any control. If songs completely dictated your mood then that would turn kids into utter skitzos”

Keith struggled to maintain his composure without sounding too defensive, “Well, of course it’s not the only thing, but you can’t deny it has an effect. Like I saw this documentary the other night on TV about all the effects music can have on the brain, the Mozart effect they call it. And then there was this whole bit about the emotional influence it gives you, like I was just saying. They did these experiments to see how people reacted in the same situation with different music. Anyway, it’s a bit odd for a record store owner to argue that music doesn’t have an effect on your feelings isn’t it?”

Jim’s eyes narrowed, “I didn’t say that…”

“And then this other documentary I saw said in cities there’s just too much going on, too many people, sounds and things to see. It’s distracting.”

Jim was quietly in awe that Keith had actually taken the time to sit down and watch a documentary other than a VH1 Behind the Music biopic.

“Which then if you think about it makes sense. The cities are too much for people to handle, so people invent iPods which can block it all out and you can choose what sounds you want.”

Jim registered this as an interesting idea as he struggled to remember the title of a sociology book he had read at college all those years before. It was one of the few he had actually bothered reading but it had said something along those lines, about how the cities are so big and have so many people, so that you can’t go around saying ,“How do you do?”, to every person that you meet. The idea was that we all become strangers, blocking everybody else out. Who wrote that? Simon? Simmer? Ah, Simmel!

The idea was that in the city we are all near to one another but far away from one another at same time. But does a private musical experience really take you far away from the person standing next to you who doesn’t hear that same sound with you? Maybe, but that was still something different to dictating our moods via music.

“But what you described, the device in the book I mean, affected people directly, right? Like injecting a feeling into somebody’s vein. I agree that if you can choose your own soundtrack then maybe you can affect your mood to some degree by the music you choose to listen to, but that’s not the same as dictating your mood. And then do we know that certain music always as the same effect on the brain, every time it’s played?”

Keith shrugged.

“Look,” Jim continued, “if somebody torched you car it doesn’t matter what happy Beach Boys song you’re listening to when you see your car, you’re still going to be pissed off.”
Keith huffed and crossed his arms, flicking his head and his pony tail with it, like the tail of an agitated cat. “Alright it’s not quite same but it’s certainly comes close, and a lot closer than a LP player!”

Jim shook his head, “But we still can’t definitely say how effective sound is with regards to your emotions, especially in a town or city, when there’s so many things going on visually, things you touch and smell… I don’t think you can isolate one sense and say that it completely dictates your emotions.”
Keith looked defeated and his eyes stared to wander the shop floor. Suddenly they darted back up, “Wait! What about when people watch videos and movies on their iPods? That’s sightand sound at the press of a button!”
Jim gave a bored look up to the ceiling, exhaled, and instantly shot this idea out of the sky;“How would you be completely immersed in sight and vision all the time? People have to see where they are going when they’re walking down the sidewalk, don’t they?”

Keith was visibly growing tired of stalemate, “OK, so we’re not quite living in the future of flying cars and robots, but technology has the changed the way we live, it changed us; it’s changed how we listen to music.”

“That may be so, but I’m still not convinced that music can utterly dictate your mood,” said Jim. 

Keith was about to launch into another round when he was cut short by a sudden beeping sound emanating from his watch. He stood with his finger raised in the air, his mouth hanging open, as he slowly glanced at the face of the Casio brand calculator watch, circa 1986, strapped around his wrist. He looked up to Jim with a less than pleased look on his face.

“I’ve got a lesson, so I’d best be off. But we’re going to talk about this next time!”

“Sure. And I’ll give you a call when that Jethro Tull record comes in.”

“Alright. Catch you later”

“Yep, see ya’”
The buzzer let out its piercing whine as the stringy pony tail disappeared thorough the door. Jim went to the bins and started rearranging the records that Keith and the kids had been pawing through. Jim wondered if his debate partner had simply been spending too much time watching science fiction films to the point that the world was becoming a fantastic fiction. Still, whether or not he was going mad from cabin fever with only guitars and a shelf of VHS tapes for company, Keith had a point about the format. The way we listen to music has changed.

Jim looked over the racks as walked slowly through his shop, trying to decide on a record. How did he feel? What kind of music did he want to listen to right at that point in time? As his eyeballs scanned the titles and cover arts he wondered if this change in listening habits, which had led to everyday people creating their own little private bubbles of sound, had in fact meant that everyone else in the world had caught up with what Jim had been doing for the past 20 years.

Right here in his shop he had every song he could ever want to hear, closed away from the sounds of the city outside and its polluting soundscape. Here he was safe inside his own personal iPod.

How did he feel or rather how did he want to feel? Jim smiled as picked up a special edition 45 picture disc and walked back to his record player behind the counter. On the disk was a young Gary Numan complete with platinum blond hair; printed along the top of the record the title read, “Are Friends Electric?”.

Dann Gaymer is a writer, editor and columnist from the UK currently living and working in South Korea. He writes and edits for publications in Asia, Europe and the USA. http://www.danngaymer.com/


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/125034-episode-two-paranoid-android/