live music and mp3 thoughts

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This week’s readings were so interesting I almost wish I was doing a seminar on them! Instead I will word vomit into this text box for (likely) no one but my mom to read.

Thought #1: Paul Gilroy’s article felt kind of like a halfway point between last week’s focus (on race) and this week’s (on music) to me. I liked the way it talked about blues and the way that some music puts listeners through a physical experience of interpretation. Gilroy describes the “preference for recorded rather than live music” as “interesting and disturbing” (298). I think this is a very astute observation; while recorded music may be easier to access (particularly in the mp3 format discussed by Jonathan Sterne in another of our readings), there is nothing quite like live music.

Music means a lot to me – I began taking piano lessons at age 5, joined my first choir at age 6, and am now pursuing a minor in music. I love its transcendent power, the way it can pull me out of a funk or console me like a good friend. I completely understand what Gilroy is getting at, and I love a good concert. There’s something about the physicality of that experience that is different from the “casual listening” (Sterne 833) of recordings. Concerts force us into the musical sphere, they immerse us in the sheer power of the music, and we are able to share space with the music makers while also sharing the unifying power of the songs. When I see someone live and they sound the same, but more invested because the audience is right there in front of them, I love them more (even if their voice is a bit rougher with the lack of auto-tune!).

Thought #2: When I got to the end of Jonathan Sterne’s piece on the mp3, I Googled him, because I was convinced that his thoughts were a result of the changing times, and I was sure that he must be ‘old’ (record generation rather than cassette or CD). Not so – he was born in 1970, and is in fact younger than my parents. Interesting. He says that “[t]he mp3 is an artifact in another sense” (826). He comments on its portability and its comparatively worse sound quality. Later, Sterne refers to Walter Benjamin and calls the mp3 a ‘collectible’ or “cultural object” (830). Sterne says that people “treat [mp3s] like objects … because they are used to handling recordings as physical things” (830). He closes this argument by pointing out that mp3s differ from “a more obviously ‘physical’ form such as a record or compact disc (CD)” (830).

As I read this, I furiously underlined all the parts I wanted to blog about, but I don’t want this to turn into a rant. Basically, I think that because Sterne is not part of the ‘mp3 generation’, his thoughts make a lot of assumptions about the primary users of mp3s. I, on the other hand, am part of the ‘mp3 generation’. As a kid, I used my mom’s cassette tape Walkman. Eventually I graduated to a red Sony Discman, and boy, did I love that thing (back when I only had 3 CDs: Shania Twain, Hilary Duff, and Avril Lavigne. Very early 2000s stuff). I got my first iPod at age 11, and I was obsessed with the new technology and the freedom it gave me – imagine something that’s able to hold more than 1 CD worth of songs! I don’t think of my iTunes library as a ‘collection’, and I don’t treat my mp3s like objects. The fact that they aren’t physical objects is what I like best about them – they don’t take up any space and I can have an unlimited number of them on my computer or my phone. The ‘mp3 generation’ is the same generation that thinks CDs are obsolete, and perhaps the sound quality is worse, but the ‘better’ sound quality Sterne is alluding to must come from records, which are practically alien to millenials. We grew up on CDs and, later, downloaded those CDs onto our computers, only to forget about the physical CD itself. I want to like what Sterne is saying, but I just don’t agree.

Hoping these readings will spark some interesting discussion tomorrow! I will try not to get too passionate about this mp3/CD/cassette/record debate! (PS: Is it the same as the Netflix/Blu-Ray/DVD/VHS debate? Hmmm…)