Songs, Swoosh-ified

The intimacy between David Bowie’s Low album and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot reveals an artistic project that takes stock of electronica and Krautrock, but also sets pop music firmly on the road towards post-punk. Ironically, and perhaps befitting the punk ethos, both albums were released in early 1977, a good few months before The Sex Pistols finally released Never Mind the Bollocks.

Some critics suggest that The Idiot was simply David Bowie’s testing ground for his ‘new music’ venture; others see it as a nihilist revelling in the death of rock — The Idiot was on Ian Curtis’s turntable the night he was found hanging. Bowie himself suggested that Pop had become his “guinea pig” for the development of Low, but also admits that Pop had an extraordinary talent for free thought.

The tale behind the recording of Low is detailed in the 33 1/3 volume of the same name written by Hugo Wilcken (Continuum, 2005). Here Wilcken explains how the two albums respond to each others understanding of relationships in the post-industrial age: Low is an autistic worldview where relationships are impossible, in The Idiot relationships are possible but the interdependence is a “mutually destructive addiction”. If anything the reciprocation between these two albums is destructively constructivist with Bowie offering The Idiot an holistic artistic vision and Pop insistently driving Low back to “harsher, messier guitar.”

Wilcken’s slim volume reflects the “restless travel” that led to the creation of Low and translates how both albums are complete works in themselves but also inform each other just as they go on to inform such groups as Joy Division. The most important thing this book does, however, is remind us that The Idiot isn’t about the song ‘Nightclubbing’, nor is Low about ‘Sound and Vision’. The fundamental concept behind the 33 1/3 series, where each book is dedicated to the writer’s favourite album, reminds us of something very simple: that the whole of these recordings is worth more than the sum of its parts. Albums recorded as such should be listened to as such.

It would seem outlandish behaviour if, after having placed your vinyl copy of Low on your turntable, you then preceded to listen to track 5 before shifting the pick-up arm back to track 1 before flipping over the record to listen to ‘Warszawa’ before turning it over again to listen to ‘Sound and Vision’, etc. It is not the effort or the dexterity that this would require that appears unusual, but the simple fact that this would disturb the very experience of engaging with the oeuvre itself.

The shuffle button changed everything.

Technology not only has a direct impact on how we lead our lives, it has a direct impact on our own cultural social constructs as living breathing entities. It changes the way we relate to the world around us, the way we are received, the way we behave. Technology promises us both the brightest of futures and the destruction of who we are. I’m not talking about those overarching themes that dominate our television sets (climate change, the war on terror, nuclear proliferation), or, indeed, our computer screens (blogs, podcasts, social networking). I’m talking about those small, imperceptible changes that technology introduces into our existence.

Technological progress has always been promulgated as a means to bring people together, to make the world smaller. The Romans built roads to connect the different parts of their empire, to unite the disparate citizens of Rome. The industrial revolution made us gravitate around urban centres, shoving the population into ever closer proximity. Distances are made shorter and movement is accelerated, allowing us to reach each other more and more quickly. Trains that can take us from London to Paris just 20 minutes faster than before are lauded as a minor European miracle. The plight of the Airbus 380 soon became a major global concern.

The mobile phone, the supposed symbol of late 20th century liberty, allows us to keep in touch with each other during every waking and sleeping moment of the day – a prime example of how the notion of independence is used to plaster over our growing interdependence, how freedom is offered to us just in case we realise we’re in no way responsible for the way we lead our own lives.

And in the name of freedom, of giving us more opportunities to express our individuality, to live, time is compressed, packaged, commodified. Contrary to the pop economics adage of ‘time is money’, what we are now being sold is that money is time. The commodification of time gave time a new prestige; it has become a Baudrillardian sign-value, carrying with it no real symbolic value. Time has been reduced to a mark of luxury, a commodity that can be transferred or, I would argue, shuffled.

When the BBC decided to axe Top of the Pops nearly two years ago, it came at a time when the ‘death of the single’ argument was suffering its last rattling gasp. Of course, what was really being mourned was the demise of the seven-inch spiral scratch. The blame for this apparent audiocide was firmly laid at the feet of the sanitised CD single with Paul Morley concluding: “As soon as we pushed a compact disc into a slot, and there was a deadened silence before the song, a limbo moment that seemed to represent the way the art of pop had become big business, we felt that the magic had been tidied up, controlled” (The Guardian, 1st August 2003).

But was it really the arrival of the CD that changed our consumer habits, that altered the way we chose to listen to music? Or were our habits already changing, thus prompting the technology visionaries to re-imagine our future? The CD celebrated its 25th birthday last August, thereby reaching what was expected to be the limit of its life expectancy. And although its sales are decreasing, it still remains a staple gift choice.

The format was originally conceived by the boffins at Philips to hold 60 minutes of music. This was extended to 74 minutes so that the disc could play the whole of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, ‘The Choral’, the composer’s last great opus, a beacon for the romantic era, containing in its last movement the ‘Ode to Joy’. The result was a disc with a diameter slightly longer than originally intended, making it bulkier and not quite as mobile as it could have been. But in 1982, the release of the first commercial CD was for many of us our introduction to the new globalised age. The Laserdisc may have already been around for three decades but it was analog and really only for MCA films; the CD brought the digital era into our homes, cars, coat pockets, bags, you name it.

You could, if you so desired, buy your music in that preter-mobile music format, the compact cassette. But this was never a popular choice amongst music aficionados. Tapes were for taping, they were never really perceived as an original format. And no matter how fragile vinyl was, there was no greater threat than having the front spool on your player stop winding on the temperamental magnetic band. The Walkman did help give the cassette some credibility, but unpardonably the format gave birth to a monster that has proven to be uncontrollable. Indeed, the tape allowed us to compose soundtracks to our lives or, more often than not, it allowed us to give voice to our burgeoning romances.

Yes, the cassette begat that most abominable of audio creations: the mix-tape. In the early ’60s, just as the actors involved in shaping popular music were rethinking the long playing 33 1/3, no longer considering it as a collection of individual songs but as a whole, as something organic, complete, as something artistically integral, so Philips, those dastardly futurists, were promulgating an instrument that would revive Tristan Tzara from his Dadaist grave. No sooner was the ‘record album’ turning into a force to be reckoned with than the cassette came along, giving us the opportunity to splice it all up again, to turn the whole back into the sum of its parts.

What the album was fundamentally doing was dictating to us the value of a specific time period. Just as the narrative of a book forces us to start reading with the first word on the first page and finish with the last word on the final page, so the album imposes the narrative of the next 45 minutes. In this way, the album offers us a thickened environment where meanings explode as each track informs the surrounding songs. At its very core, therefore, the album holds symbolic value that isn’t easily transferable. It doesn’t offer us a meaningless moment of phonic luxury, but forces us to experience something in particular.

These experiences find themselves documented in the 33 1/3 Greatest Hits multiple book project. In his volume The Stone Roses (2006), Alex Green reminds us that the eponymous album released in 1989 shrugged off “time and history” to produce:

…a cohesive album, an album not Frankensteined together with one hit single and an array of scraps disguised as songs, but an album whose seamlessly sequenced song cycle begins by devilishly taunting, “I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me,” and then nervily ends with the self-obsessed and deliciously arrogant declaration “I am the Resurrection and I am the Light.”

This understanding of the record album may be accused of suffering from the lilt of modern art and its incumbent criticism. Perhaps this is what Charles Thompson, lead singer of The Pixies, is inferring when he dismisses journalist Ben Sisario’s questioning about Doolittle (1989) as “archaeology”. But in his 33 1/3 outing on Doolittle (2006), Sisario affirms that “Thompson is a master puzzlemaker, and he has made no greater puzzle than Doolittle” and continues:

Doolittle is, on the one hand, among the most violent pop albums ever recorded, if not in body count then in the starkness of its calamities. It features rape, mutilation of the eyes, vampirism, suffocation, smothering by tons of garbage, and the chaos of gunfire; for the punch line, everybody gets crushed to death.

If, like Sisario, we believe there is a punch line, then the album must offer itself as a whole even if, like a good novel, its key is not on the final page, though it is only once we have read the whole book that it reveals itself to us. Thompson may want to us to believe “that there is no real meaning to all the horror and the dread”, but he insists that “[t]he point is to experience it.”

As Green reminds us, the single, understood as an isolated track, is a sign-value, a transferable commodity that evokes, with the appropriate seemingly innocuous tools, the possibility of creating audio scenery for our daily lives, of adding prestige to our quotidian. Needless to say that constructing a personal soundtrack from a number of different components is in itself an exercise in creating a narrative. But this narrative will never have a symbolic value – the act of decomposing the album turns the individual songs into the Nike swoosh, a sign that can be put on a shoe, a tee-shirt a baseball cap. In itself it is devoid of meaning, but in the act of transference adds a passing notion of prestige to the medium to which it is attached. The song or songs thus shuffled may give a moment in time a particular sense of prestige, but that moment will pass. It is not the music that provokes a momentary experience that can be revisited, as Thompson asserts it should be, but it is a momentary experience that is played out against a song before it is lost forever.

This argument is given its full commercial impact when viewed from the perspective of the Greatest Hits record. Again, this particular action reduces albums to one or two stand-alone tracks which are then juxtaposed to other single releases to create a bastardised biography based on the band or artist’s more mercantile manifestations. Whether or not you dress it up as a compilation or as a set of remasters, even Led Zeppelin did not escape the allure of the Best Of collection. And here, surely, lies one of Zeno’s lost paradoxes: Led Zeppelin have never released a single in the UK, considering themselves to be an album band. But this didn’t stop certain songs from being swoosh-ified.

The real revolution in the world of digital audio media has had nothing to do with the death of the single. The single was never under threat; we must simply stop thinking of the single as format-linked but as a time commodity. Neither had it anything to do with the way we buy (or don’t buy) music. And for all the classical music lovers reading this, neither did it have anything to do with the way the music is compressed. But it has had a direct link to the massive drop in album sales pushing Prince and Radiohead for all intents and purposes, to give away their latest albums for free.

The real revolution in the world of digital audio media is that it allowed for the creation of the ‘random’ button, the automatic shuffle feature on CD players. The introduction of the mp3 went even further by turning the shuffle function into the default play function. Apart from a few nostalgic diehards, today we would no longer talk of mix-tapes but of playlists. Loaded onto our computer or mp3 player our ‘record’ collection is collated into a playlist which will order tracks alphabetically or by artist or by date of release, genre, length, quality of the rip… But invariably even these profane listings are bypassed by the random play option. The iPod may have exploded onto the personal media player market because of its aesthetic feel, but how many of us took note of the introduction of the iPod Shuffle with as much intensity? And yet this is not an innocuous piece of technology but the marketing of the death of the album.

Prince and Radiohead were not taking a stance against the loss of copyright induced by a world wide web inhabited by blood-thirsty pirates. Their recent nonconformist distribution methods were rather an attempt at protecting the integrity of the work as a whole – the artists trying to reappropriate the intended receivership of their work.

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