Ode to My Playlist

For those of us consumers lucky enough to afford the latest technology, the act of listening to music has become increasingly more eclectic and fulfilling, and I, for one, don’t take it for granted. However, I’ve noticed that the advent of Winamp, iTunes and other computer jukeboxes, and related technology like the iPod (and whatever Sony is patenting right now to out pod the Pod), has caused a shift in focus from the artist’s collection of songs (ie. “album”) to the individual song.

Now, some might say this is a bad thing, and believe me, I’m right there with you. For instance, it’s just wrong to subject art form albums like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire, or Radiohead’s Kid A to the distortion of increments or shuffle. In fact, this act should be illegal, with a Parental Warning: Explicit Content-like sticker on the CD, cautioning that such use will ruin the music forevermore. But let’s face it. The album is no longer as important of a unit for measuring the success of a band/artist as a song. I blame computer jukebox/mP3 technology and the sad truth, which is that we’ve seen a sharp decline in the number of bands and artists who can pull off the masterful no-weakness album of unique, diverse songs that all share some mysterious tidal pull.

Reluctantly (some might say kicking and screaming), I have to admit that it is for the best that the spotlight shift from the album to the individual song. So now, here we have all these single solitary songs, downloaded, lifted from a mix CD, plucked off a shitty album with eight tracks of filler, taking up valuable memory on your computer. What will they do now that they are lost in your RAM, with no rightful “album” to call home? However will they derive a sense of belonging, cohesion, and collective meaning?

Cue and enter the Playlist. Effectively filling every music nut’s fantasy of being a DJ, the Playlist never fails to invoke the creative impulses of the music listener. Playlists are OUR art-form concept albums, a blank slate where we can juxtapose and edit the order of the songs we love, depending on mood, time, and place, continually subject to change. With playlists, there are no rules; music genres blend seamlessly. Why do we need DJs anymore? K-ROQ’s Stryker and KCRW’s Nic Harcourt (and his eclectic accent) can just suck it, because I’m the DJ now. And I’m better than them because I don’t take no payola, and frankly, I just have superior taste. The Playlist = freedom from every mechanism that tries to define your music taste for you.

Often limited by track order on albums, the individual songs themselves can take on new meaning on a Playlist. For instance, one time I unintentionally had one of the most emotionally intense songs of all time, Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (which should not have even been listened to independent of the album, Bringing It All Back Home, in the first place) immediately followed by Britney Spears’ sex-romp “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Now, this is alarmingly twisted, I know, but it happened by accident. While this was a perfect example of a very bad edit (I still have nightmares), on the upside, there are plenty of good edits just waiting to happen.

Once you have your Playlist, nobody can change the dial, bump it to the next track, or call in with lame requests. The Playlist is power. Make it your own, and generously spread the power by exposing your Playlist to those who may not know its power…yet. Contrary to what Lars Ulrich will try to make you believe about Napster Nation, today’s music is meant to be harmoniously purchased and shared, so he should just save his complaints for his band therapist.

***Note: After writing this, I do realize that I am completely disregarding the mix tape phenomenon of the mid-late 80s. However, I’m writing this under the assumption that our current lazy, instant gratification American culture would rather not waste two hours of precious time to spend two-plus hours making a mix tape, let alone actually locating a tape player.

On a more personal note, I’d like to redeem myself for the Bob Dylan-Britney Spears edit by sharing my own Playlist habit. I’ve noticed that my friends tend to create many different Playlists organized by certain artists, or grouped by genres, time periods, lyrical subject matter, etc. Not me. Like my writing, nothing in my life is really organized (CD collection = one big living, breathing chaotic organism, nothing in its rightful place, ghosts of past organizational attempts constantly crying out for help to deaf ears), and my Playlist is no exception.

There is only one Playlist, and it’s evolving into one big mass of ear candy, sweet with appreciation and ever-changing context. Every night its intuition guides The New Goo to wherever it wasn’t planning on going. Every morning, when it brings my drowsy mind to life, and I say a silent thank you and listen.


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