Too Much Music, Too Little Attention

“What I’m about to do
I’m sure nobody expected
But that’s what I do

– Sisqo, “Unleash the Dragon”

The author of this exhilarating NPR piece, James Jackson Toth, tried to do something so brave that, even in failure, I look upon him as the most sacrificial of martyrs. Bless him.

Toth came to the same realization as I have over the past couple years: With so much access to music these days, it’s almost impossible to connect with individual songs and albums when you are a monster of consumption. Not like you could 15 years ago, at least. So to combat this, Toth tried to listen to one album a week in 2017. Spoiler: He did not last long.

He was missing too much audible goodness, and made this revelation:

“Am I a ‘deep listener’ or merely another trophy-hunting collector? I’d always considered myself the former. So why do I feel, while I am listening to music I enjoy, that I’m missing out on something else? Why does direct engagement with a work of art suddenly feel like a fruitless attempt at multitasking?”

Many of you may not understand this, but this is a very real struggle. Every Friday, I comb through new album releases and throw them on what ends up being a 20-hour playlist. I must listen to at least one song on each album, only skipping if it’s awful (I respect my time enough to know when to bail).

But though this leads to a well-versed listening portfolio, this habit diffuses the magic of music: the emotional connection. Before streaming services, when you had CDs, records, cassettes and the like, your scope was limited to fewer bands. You could envelop yourself in an album, learn its lyrics, hear its B-sides, discover hidden messages and get to know each and every band member.

Whatever I was going through in my teenage years, a specific set of albums were there when I needed them, unconditionally.

I’ve lost that connection. I would listen to music that some people would consider “good” and some that people would consider “bad,” but it was mine. Sisqo’s Unleash the Dragon was the first album I ever purchased with my own money and, no matter what I think of it now, it will forever hold a special place in my heart. Then there’s the likes of Truant by Alien Ant Farm, II by The Calling, Europop by Eiffel 65 – randomsauce albums that somehow landed upon my impressionable ears. And I delight in revisiting them even today.

Trent Reznor presented this astute observation in this gritty interview with Vulture (emphasis mine):

“Again, I’m not saying mine was a better era, but a lot of the music I ended up really loving was because I spent nine bucks on an album and that meant I had to listen to it and figure it out. Or maybe I forgot to sign the slip for the Columbia Record Club and they sent me a Billy Joel album I never asked for. Then you get it and you’re like, Oh fuck. But you know what? I listened to that album a thousand times simply because that was the record I’d paid for, and I ended up loving Billy Joel’s 52nd Street.”

The ability to stream music is the greatest blessing I’ve ever received as a listener. I remember having $10 to spend and having to choose between System of a Down’s Steal This Album or Sum 41’s Does This Look Infected? and the agony that came with it. As I walked out of Target with the SoaD album in hand, I wondered if I would ever hear the Sum 41 album in its entirety. Now I have access to that album and then some. My 14-year-old self would have never removed his headphones.

But the boon of limitless content comes with sacrificed attention. I cannot bond with albums the way I once could, and yet I would never trade Spotify to return to the way things were. I am no longer the deep listener, but rather the trophy hunter. I am enjoying this bird’s-eye view, away from the craters and alleyways. The wind speaks to me.

I am about to show you something quite graphic, so please gather your wits before venturing further:

lastfm 2017

Those are my stats from 2017. Fifty-five days of music. Disgusting. I don’t even know what to say except that I am extremely proud of myself. As long as I have access to music like I do now, I will indulge in the gluttony. I will make your discoveries mine and I will delight in sharing my own. I will embrace all genres with limited discrimination and learn the landscape. The wind speaks to me and it says, “Listen.”

Toth tried the hero route, but he’s stuck here with me and the rest of the music junkies. We will consume because there is always something new and because we must. There are hidden gems out there. We are the excavators. And I am willing to sacrifice intimate relationships to find them.

Random Notes

  • I’m not without strong album relationships entirely. Each year, when I do those ungodly year-end reviews, I get intimate with maybe five of those albums and the other five are fringe or filler. Then there are a couple that don’t make the list because I know how to separate favorites and bests. So out of the 5,000 albums I tasted last year, I bonded with maybe seven or eight.
  • As Toth mentions in the article, it is literally impossible to listen to everything. Yet I still try for some reason. I am mad.
  • I’ll have days where I think, “That may be the last time I will ever listen to that song,” and am every time bewildered by the harrowing plausibility.
  • My strategy of titling “Roundtable Talks” based off of song titles when they aren’t about the actual song is bad practice. Hence why this is just a standalone.

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