David Immel takes a stark and honest approach to how we ingest and digest creative works. Illustration by Greg Bemis.
A wise woman once told me: a loss of a thing creates space for a thing to be gained. There have been tremendous gains and losses for the average music listener in quality, variety and especially in accessibility. Listening to music has become a more immediate and personal experience and this process has stripped away layers of curation. Intermediating layers of others’ preferences and choices are no longer as dense or normative as in the past.
When I was about six riding in my dad’s truck running errands in the countryside of Iowa he was tuning in the a.m. radio as we drove thru the spring sunshine. He found a local station. This was 1971. The announcer in a slow drawl said, “Up next, Buddy Holly.” My Dad in a rare aside to me said, “This is music, son.” My father rarely spoke to me. Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day!” came on thru the static and rushing windows. One side of my Dad’s smile tensed upwards. This song meant something to him. Buddy Holly was followed without a pause or pre-amble by Pasty Cline’s “Crazy.”
One tear hung in my father’s crows’ feet on the side that I could see, as he stared straight at the road. He pulled off the country road and into a diner. We ordered fries, BLTs and soda. The diner had jukeboxes at every booth. I stood on the booth and scrolled through the titles. I saw names I recognized, Johnny Cash was the one I knew best. I begged a quarter and played “Ring of Fire,” “A Boy named Sue,”and Cline’s “Crazy.” He didn’t see the third choice. He tapped his fingers to the first two. “A Boy Named Sue” made me giggle in my soda. When “Crazy” came on, he put on his shades and paid the bill. There was no radio played for the rest of the day. That next summer I fell in love with Don McLean’s “American Pie”and wore out the 45; at the end the sound was so bad I had to press my ear against the record player.
My Father’s rare emotional display was my first experience with the mediation of listening. I never found out what moved him about that song, that combination of songs. In spite of not knowing any of the facts of my father’s relationship to those songs, I felt multiple connections to those two songs through by my father’s smirk and tears. I had heard both of these songs before but something about my father’s emotions, the radio announcers spare words created a sense of connection to the songs, to my father’s unusual and vague response to hearing, sharing the songs with me. I didn’t know the word at the time but because of mediation,that is something coming between me and the songs, I sensed, gained a connection. Mediation is the name I give the experience that was unspoken; an emotional bridge back into my father’s history with those songs. Another layer of mediation came from the DJs and radio stations, further layered was the record as engineered, produced and created by the choices of others. Other people’s choices and experiences informed my experience. I remember thinking why this song for my Dad? Why on the radio and jukebox? I was unable to answer some of these questions until later in life. But those two songs still have a place in my memories.
1983: my brother had invested in a “sound system”, not just a stereo. I forget the names of the equipment but the turntable and headphones became stabilizing companions for me during the bleak high school years. I would lay on the floor and listen to The Police’s “Synchronicity” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” I couldn’t see anything, too high too feel anything, it was just me and the music driven directly into my mind via the headphones. I had to put it all back as it was; I couldn’t be found out ; I was using it all without permission. I pushed the timing as close as possible: he was due home at midnight. I listened to both albums twice. When I lay down on my slim bed and heard him come in at his curfew, the music was gone in a crush of worry.
My brother’s choices and preferences came between, mediated for me and the listening experience. He chose music from a world I had no access to and his older working class friends had little space for me. His hours in record stores were a luxury I couldn’t afford. He was able to go to concerts (I tagged along to a few) but school nights and costs again mediated my access to music. My brother’s choices and preferences curated music I had access to. Again the artists’, the producers, the engineers, the LP’s themselves all were layers of choices between me and the music .
I got my own Walkman just after I graduated high school. Boston, Pink Floyd, Mötley Cruüe, and more were always on my headphones. I saw these bands play huge concert events. I’d found some freedom of choice in my listening, but I was still limited to what I heard on the radio, saw on MTV, what friends saw and heard from the same limited sources . One day my best friend shared The Fixx’s “Reach the Beach” that he got in a Minneapolis record shop; new wave was radical and dangerously deviant. This was small town Iowa in 1984 after all. We shared a secret for alternative music. We stayed up late slumped in front of MTV to catch new bands, new sounds, without anyone the wiser. I wore out my Walkman and I couldn’t afford another one. I spiraled into poverty, a selfish darkness gripped me . I lost my taste for music. I didn’t own even a clock radio for almost five years.
My friends’ choices and preferences, the radio’s and MTV’s playlists, producers and promoters all curated my music experience. Change was on the horizon: quality cassette recorders were now affordable. The art of making mixed tapes for your friends and crushes grew to the point were we attended tape exchange parties. Turntables became easy to carry around; technology and taste combined to where DJ’s created music live in clubs and people flocked to the DJ not the band. The new laser disk and CD technologies had the geek boys and the rich foaming at the mouth as they praised the latest gadgets . Personal listening, personal arrangement of music (on tapes and in clubs) drew listeners closer to the creative output of artists. Fewer layers of mediation, fewers layers of others’ choices inbringing the listening experience were bringing listener and creator closer and closer. CD’s replaced cassettes, friends’ burned copies of their favorites, compilations and playlists crowded out mix tapes.
What has been gained is a more direct connection to the music.
What has been lost is some meaning, some connection to others about the music. I’ll never solve the mystery of my Dad’s teary response to “Crazy.” I don’t think I would have had that experience if he had lived long enough to post it on Facebook. I sit on the bus thrilled to hear Mumford and Sons “Babel” while ten other people looking out the windows, headphones plugged in having experiences I have no connection to at all. I haven’t listened to a CD in more than three years. MP3, digital streaming ‘radio’, YouTube recommendations on Facebook; these are the avenues of listening now.
What has been lost I think is the sharing of a moment of artistry and the creation of shared memories. When something is lost a space is made for something to be gained. What has been lost is noticing out of the corner of my eye, my Father’s tense smile and tear drop; my guilty pleasure and worrying at discovery by my brother for my sneaking or by friends who might disapprove of the new and different; what has been lost is the widening of the eyes that signal a shared perking of the ears, a jump of the soul when we hear new music that moves us. What have been lost are the shared memories, the points of referral….”you remember when…?” The knowing smile and nodding in time to the beat when your friend sees you get why he told you to listen; that is rarer as we have gained in accessibility.
What has been gained is directness to the art itself. This is more immediate, without things, choices coming between the listener and the experience. This directness draws the listener closer to the music, to the artists’ creation. As we grow closer to the artist we seem to be further from each other, further from shared experience.