Culture  Stuck on Shuffle: Elvis is dead and mash-ups are king

How we listen to music in a culture of infinite choice

Earlier in the semester, I had to read three chapters of a book called The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, by Alan Ehrenhalt. The central thesis is that American communities have lost cohesion since the 1950s, thanks to the advent of a “culture of choice.” Ehrenhalt notes that people are enticed by the notion of virtually unlimited choices, but points to modern-day nostalgia as proof that people still wish they could regain the comfort of a small community of neighbours whom they know and trust. In short, we’d like certain elements of the fifties back because we’re feeling rather disoriented and distrustful.

I’m not as eager as Ehrenhalt to derive a coherent theory about human nature and the psychological ramifications of boundless choice, plus I didn’t read the whole book, but it seems true that the ability to choose in new ways is having some interesting effects on our culture. Naturally, pop culture and music are hardly immune.

Downloading has theoretically given us access to every song ever – or at least every remotely popular song released since 1950-something – and in exercising our newfound ability to choose, it’s as if we’d rather not choose at all. Instead, we choose everything (which is like choosing to choose by not choosing). Some people are open to more kinds of music than others, but I would suspect that the average McGill student has something from every decade since 1960 in their iTunes library. While having access to such a selection of musical history once meant owning a prohibitively expensive quantity of plastic or vinyl, now you can pull it off with an investment in a tiny box (or phone) that slides out of your pocket like a bar of soap whenever you sit down. So what happens when everyone has the ability to listen to every song ever made, every day? The phenomenon of everyone listening to the same thing at any given time becomes more and more of a rarity. And that has been an essential part of pop-cultural community building since Prometheus (Elvis) stole fire (rock ‘n’ roll) from the gods and died on a cliff side (toilet) while vultures (Dexedrine) pecked out his liver.

The effect is indeed disorienting. The individual is so personally empowered that he or she has access to a representation of any historical community of musical appreciation from the whole 20th century, but no access to an immediately definable musical community in the 21st, because such a thing, I think, is ceasing to exist. Innovation is increasingly reliant on compilation and the state of music in this decade reflects this evolution. Sampling calls upon the ingrained associations of a historically informed listening public to induce appreciation: Girl Talk takes roughly 40 years of pop music and shoots it all into your head like your iPod is on the world’s most transcendently coordinated shuffle cycle. Even the way we’re dressing, which seems distinctively 21st century, is a compilation of sorts. Yes, that bright t-shirt is very eighties, but that angular hairstyle looks like it crawled out of punk-era London, to say nothing of the mod-y suit vest and skinny pants. My, the sixties, seventies, and eighties are all back, and they’re all on the same dude, and he’s throwing verses in the crowd for Nas at Metropolis like he came up in Queensbridge in the nineties.

New music has always drawn upon its forebears in innovating, but the level of self-awareness seen in the process today is unprecedented. This is also a function of the web – this time as a means of bypassing corporate distribution of media: copyright laws still impede unrestrained sampling in commercial music, but the online mixtape phenomenon is spawning a whole new, generationally integrative composition process. One of the most enjoyable listening experiences I had this year was Man In The Mirror, a collaboration between British producer Mark Ronson and Chicago emcee Rhymefest. It’s a hip hop mixtape made with uncleared samples of Michael Jackson songs, which simultaneously pays homage to and parodies the generation-spanning career of one of the most enduring figures in pop music. It’s a brilliant illustration of the debt hip hop owes to soul music of the sixties and seventies, and to MJ in particular, but the skits lampooning Mike’s personality quirks keep the thing from getting heavy-handed. The result is a piece of music that not only wears its influences on its sleeve, but exists to do so. Mixtape/mashup music, at its most intriguing, is consciously turning the transgenerational listening party into art.

So is the security and familiarity of a like-minded listening community something we want back? Do the benefits of choice outweigh the comfort of having the musical menu reduced to exactly what your peers are also listening to? When we reflect retrospectively on our youths, are we in danger of coming up with only that eight-second video of the intense-looking groundhog as an example of genuine shared experience? I suspect not. I suspect the mixtape phenomenon is a turning point. Maybe one day we’ll look back on ourselves as the first generation to have the ability to listen to, appreciate, and artfully manipulate a wealth of preexistent pop music, and recognize the start of something significant. And if that means the dude keeps wearing his shutter shades on the same head as his fifties pompadour, I say, bring it on. Elvis quit taking his pomp’ seriously and look what happened to him.

Stuck on Shuffle appears every other Monday in the Culture section.