Music and Materialism in the Digital Age

There are two life-enriching things that are said to become much more challenging after college: meeting people and discovering good music. In my own experience, I have found the latter to be true and the former to be the opposite of true: false.

I can swallow the sentiment that it’s harder to meet interesting people when you no longer live in a veritable colony of peers, but to be sure, I spent most of my college time in isolated obscurity.

As a result of the above, however, I was constantly discovering great music that spoke to me. This was because at that time in my life, to do so was a necessity. It was either that or notice the ever-present silence. I’ll also admit to having had the occasional friend who would introduce me to something good.

Now, some six-plus-change years later, I find myself spoiled with peers but still mindlessly pounding through the same ancient stuff on my playlist. Bands like The Thrills and Little Barrie have great personal significance to me and are a joy to listen to even now, but neither of them are relevant anymore. The Thrills are long gone and Barrie’s become some sort of surf rock band. I can’t secondhand smoke to that.

It’s been awhile since I heard something that was both new and captivating. When I heard Glen Hansard had a new solo album, I picked it up digitally right away, but after about two months, it still hadn’t stuck with me. It’s often the case that an album doesn’t stick out until you’ve “broken it in” with a few listenings, but I felt like I’d well passed the entry phase by now.

Then the following song from that album came on in my car yesterday morning.

If true love is a thing, it might be what I felt in the car yesterday. “YES” I actually said. “CORRECT, YOU! THIS, YES!”

By the time I arrived at my office, there were tears in my eyes.

“Mornin’, Greg.”

“I. . . I. . . ”

“You all right?”

“H-h-h-h-h-hhhh. . . . ”

“There’s. . . bagels today, y’know.”

“Today is all we have.”

It occurred to me later that day that, aside from not “needing” fresh music to keep me afloat as much anymore, the digital age has taken away from us a proportion of what it’s given. Buying a physical, compact disc of music used to be a momentous occasion. You had to pick up and go somewhere to do it, first of all. Then you had this object that you didn’t have before. It was in your hands. Before anything else–even listening to it–you would read and digest the list of track names. “‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’? Wonder what that’s gonna sound like.” Before you ever heard the music, you had an idea in your head of what to expect. Granted that’s still technically the case when you download an album, but they’ve made it so convenient now that it rarely plays out that way anymore. Here’s my usual music obtaining process of late.

1. At work, it’ll occur to me that so-and-so is supposed to have a new album.

2. I go to, a subscription-based music downloading site. Perhaps I’m behind the times for not using that streaming service everyone uses, but I kinda like “owning” stuff, which is perhaps also behind the times and kind of dumb besides. But that’s me.

3. I find the artist, find the album labeled “2012” (or whenever I am), click the download button, and the songs are instantly transferred to my iTunes playlist. The next time I plug in my phone, they will be transfered to my phone’s playlist. My phone, it turns out, is more than a phone.

4. Work happens.

5. Sometime during a lull in workload, I decide to either put my twelve-day-long playlist on shuffle or play the album I just remembered I downloaded.

6. Work happens.

7. It faintly occurs to me that at some point, that new album I downloaded came on. Or at least some of the songs, none of which I know the names of.

The song above, “The Gift,” has probably come on several times over the last couple months without my noticing. I’m not sure why it suddenly caught my attention yesterday, but it made me realize that I’ve stopped making an activity out of just listening to music. It’s always a supplement to something much more demanding. I think a lot of people fall into this habit, but I wonder if the younger generation tends to only digest music this way. Perhaps people made the same complaint about CDs in comparison to LPs or even tapes. Each medium change has had a significant effect on how we digest and appreciate our music. That’s worth a moment’s meditation.

But I think there’s also something to be said for just having a physical thing. We tend to discourage materialism with popular expressions like “You can’t take it with you” and “Don’t be a materialistic dick,” but sometimes I feel like there needs to be a frank discussion in Western culture about the inevitability of physical objects and forms having an influence on our lives. Japan, for all its Buddhist roots, has even deeper roots in something like animism, that say each object on this earth is shelter for a spirit. Whether people actually believe that on a literal level or not, Japan has traditionally endowed physical objects with a certain sanctity. Trickling down into modern society, you’re presented with a place where crisps are individually wrapped, people pray to trees, and discarded articles of clothing are thanked for their years of service. There’s an upside to materialism that is neglected in Western culture–understandable when so frequently presented with the overwhelmingly ugly flipside, but it is a bit painfully ironic that this mindset is so prevalent in America, a place whose native peoples were animistic, it turns out, as fuck.

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