The following is an old academic paper of mine for a music class. The paper is in response to a very general question: Is the iPod a cultural benefit or cost? This paper is not for everyone, and it is lengthier. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy!
“Plug it, play it, burn it, rip it,...View it, code it, jam, unlock it, Surf it, scroll it, pause it, click it...” monotonously rumbles the Daft Punk song, “Technologic,” in seeming harmony with the almost automatic, speedy, and dynamic iPod. If according to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message,” what can be said of the current technologic mediation: the iPod? Portable, small, nearly weightless, synthetic storage: is this innovation for music’s sake or for the consumer’s own egotism and sense of exceptionalism? Where Cook asserts, “there can be no music in a vacuum,” the iPod brutally retaliates, altering the sonic landscape and destabilizing our modes of listening; bastardizing the concept of musical authenticity; and ultimately enslaving and suffocating us in our current cultural postmodern condition: all this splintered and narrow-minded speed with nowhere to go (Cook, 127).
The sonic landscape pre-iPod music portability, seemed to express a private, yet ritualized communal vibe: one of harmony with the environment, attachment, and active social relations. Once upon a time, composers, performers, and an audience related with one another, exchanged thoughts, and communicated acoustically (Cox, 65). Today, on the other hand, our iPod “soundscape” (Stockfelt, 93) resembles more of a deserted wasteland, as our “nomadism” (Chambers, 99) prevents us from forging any relationship with the environment and the people residing in it. This community once dominated by music hunters and gatherers, adopts a more ‘diasporic identity’ (Chambers, 99) as human innovation allows for increasing mobility and transitoriness. In a world where people roam freely, music too has provided faulty bounds, diminishing structure, and surely, like ones ties to the land, becomes replaceable in the name of domesticity.
This shift to a more postmodern, fragmented environment and community directly impose on the rusty soundworld of the past, requiring the sound landscape of today to become increasingly self-contained, dense, and privatized, hugely a result of the iPod and like gadgets. Sound recording and playback systems like the iPod, allow music to be “detached from its source, from its ties to any particular setting and location” (Cox, 65). Even listening to an authentic Robert Johnson song via iPod, removes the song’s southern roots and its color: its historicity and musical origin. And instead of the recording disclosing “ontologically distinct and autonomous soundworlds” (Cox, 65), the iPod suffocates the fundamental quality and experience of the music, while constructing a new depraved sound world in captivity. iPod headphones further incapacitate external sound and stimuli, producing a test-tube effect on the music: trapping it, strangling it, and mercilessly scaling it down into its most compacted form. The iPod’s fidelity is poor, and unlike other recording equipment, its ability to “amplify and focus upon previously unheard or conspicuous sounds” (Cox, 66) is severely hindered. Its “sonic depth of field” (Cox, 66) is extremely limited as foreground and background sound are condensed to a single centered point. We are unable to hear the “bulldozer outside, the radio playing in the next room” (66), or our neighbor’s conversation. We can easily see now how the concept of the iPod is in great opposition to Marshall McLuhan’s statement that, “there are no boundaries to sound. We hear from all directions at once” (McLuhan, 68). Sound, we can deduce, should observe a sort of equilibrium where its “multicentered and reverberating” frenetic lines eventually create a “balance between inner and outer experience” (McLuhan, 68). In listening to the iPod, however, our depth-less listening is focused on a single, internalized, and exclusive listening center, that has no room to expand. In contrast to the above mentioned arguments, Iain Chamber’s asserts that the Walkman (or iPod) “serves to set one apart while simultaneously reaffirming individual contact to certain common, if shifting, measures (music, fashion, aesthetics,...)” (99), seeming to suggest a sort of balance. Upon closer inspection, however, one can clearly see that the so-called common standards themselves forge and reaffirm hierarchies and promote individual affiliation through group separatism (or exceptionalism).
Furthermore, the iPod problematizes the concepts of “acousmatic listening” and “profound listening” to “environmental sound matter” (Cox, 65; Lopez, 82). By drastically compartmentalizing the space of sound, not only do listeners strip the sound of a temporally limited and specific origin, but they, in seeming paradox, force it into a new immaculately conceived origin: the sound becomes produced and mediated by the iPod itself! Consumers morph into puppeteers who summon and quell the sound from and into its megabyte storage space. In the case of environmental sound produced by “biotic and non-biotic components” (Lopez, 83), this tunnel-hearing through headphones seems to sever “sound-transmitting and sound-modifying (human) elements” (83). While the iPod’s headphones do serve to compact and focus listening, they do so in an unnatural, synthetic, and tyrannical manner. Our senses, pure and unblemished, need be the only musical directives we follow. Not to mention the troublesome fact that when external noises are cut-off, we can face physical dangers–the inability to hear someone yelling, “watch out” if we are not paying attention, footsteps approaching us late at night, important announcements over a loudspeaker, etc. In summary, when all the airtight sound “goes straight to our heads,” we are unable to discern the lively mediating sound forces, and as a result, we are unable to listen profoundly, wholly, and respectfully. Distracted and solitary, we only skim sound’s synthetic surface.
Similarly daunting, the iPod jeopardizes our ability to adequately listen, according to Stockfelt’s pre-requisites (Stockfelt, 88). To begin, Stockfelt claims that “each style of music, even if it can make an appearance almost anywhere today, is shaped in close relation to a few environments” (90). Reasoning as such, and considering the iPod’s range of mobility, I find it fair to say that our continued range and diversity of mobility could eventually lead to the collapse of these initial and typical molding and standardizing environments. Simply put, we are beginning to “listen” to anything anywhere, and in a myriad of infinite “listening situations,” which lack any relatable “historical situation” or geographical context. According to Stockfelt, “adequate listening...occurs when one listens to music according to the exigencies of a given social situation and according to predominant sociocultural conventions of the subculture to which the music belongs” (Stockfelt, 91). But where do the “sociocultural conventions” even come into play with the iPod, when listening here is, 1.) an exclusive, privatized act without judges to disqualify what we are listening to and where we are listening to it; and, 2.) a mobile and trans-territorial act? Lastly, iPod listeners have fully shredded the notion of a “specific genre’s comprehensible context” (91). If we can arrange Beethoven, Mos Def, Steely Dan, and Shakira in the same contextualized space, what is the use of genre anyway?
More problematic still is Western society’s desire (and the iPod’s manipulative power) to assimilate music into a rapidly moving visual space, compromising its implications and assumptions in a wholly acoustic “natural space” (McLuhan, 71). Visual space, in direct contrast to acoustic space, “is an artifact of Western civilization...with fixed boundaries...homogeneous... and static” (McLuhan, 71). Ironically, the iPod seems to fall more into the visual space. Not only does it boast its sleek miniature design: a visual sign of status, hip-ness, youth, and technological savvy; it also functions as a soundtrack to our own motion picture of life. In addition, certain models offer a video playback system as well, additionally securing the iPod’s place in a visually inclined society. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is iPod’s eye-catching marketing--billboards with electrified Day-Glo figures jamming, and commercials, basic and uncluttered, focusing on a Feist video playing on an iPod’s sleek screen. While both forms of advertising appear to play on the synesthetic, their marketing success is wholly determined by their strategic and abundant placement in a visual sign world.
iPod: the prefix drawing on the pronoun “I,” appears to suggest individuality, self-truth, freedom, and distinction; at least it does until one notices the serial and model number and the vast sea of numbered consumers. Does the iPod in fact promote musical authenticity by not only allowing, but promoting a “direct expression to emotion and feeling” (Cook, 7)? I think not, given the fact that the iPod offers no real musical “presence,” but rather focuses solely on essence, or the trace elements of sound (Cox, 113). While music is a social construct, the idea of divine inspiration in music and “the realness of the live singular event” (113), encourage an authoritative realness and soundness in music that pluck our emotional chords. In regards to reproduction (which is largely, if not entirely possible as a result of technology) and the invent of the iPod, music (and art) has undergone “fracturing, magnifying, and multiplying:” drastic cosmetic contortion, the desire being to dissect, control, and perfect rather than let be (Cox, 113).
In addition, the iPod allows for an increasingly divested and distracted consumer who believes in quantity over quality. While music has always come with a price-tag, our current state of “commercialization,” directly challenges authenticity’s “ethical side,” by devaluing the musical author (Cook, 8; Cox, 114). Layer by layer, the “original exemplar” is obscured. We no longer have to travel further then our own computers to access a daunting reservoir of music. Like the musical practice of sampling, or “plunderphonics” (Cutler, 141), we too become internet pirates searching for booty or just something to make our booty shake. And where before music was the intellectual property of the composer/originator, now much of the power seems to lie in the “technologically prosthetic” hands of consumers, who lack individuality since they speak through others and through the voice of technology as well (Cutler, 143; Cox, 113). We want, what we want, when we want it, no matter what copyright law is in place, or what the suggested retail value may be. The days of paying homage to the creator by giving a CD release event, critical status, are long gone. We now can create our own endless CD montages in the form of an iPod playlist, and we can shuffle them in a desperate attempt to seduce chance and tickle phenomena.
The iPod’s inauthentic approach to music appears to leave us with devalued and underappreciated sound. Like the “I” in iPod, music is all about us: our experience, our solitude, our “auditory desires” (Cox, 113). We appear to give greater emphasis to the “musical technologies (which) are constantly reappropriated and redirected to ends and uses other than those originally intended” (Cox, 114) than to the actual musical presence itself. Our self-congratulatory and self-centered natures are visibly evident, as reflected by the iPod: we are the sole constructors of our musical tastes and technologic strides; we and we alone affect the music and are immune to its effect on us.
Most troubling in the midst of this expansive, yet confining technologic atmosphere, is the concept of a postmodern cultural condition: the fragmentation of our governing meta-narratives (Lyotard) for the adaptation of personal narratives: narratives which we think entitle us to our “fifteen minutes of fame” (Warhol). The iPod certainly reaffirms our sense of creative control and power alongside “music” generating computer programs. Similarly, technologic mediation allows us to produce musical reproductions, which “satisfy our expectations of how ‘the real thing’ sounds” (Lopez, 84), not the far too often disappointing actuality of reality. But we continue to be plagued with this coveted sense of otherness and our desire to know, control, and place that which is unknowable, unrestrained, and detached.
The question becomes: are we truly slipping into a “Sonic Futurism” (Eshun, 158) which “adopts a cruel, despotic, amoral attitude toward the human species” (158)? Will “Sonic Science” (159) expose us to some disastrous “cultural viruses” (159), where all humanism, authenticity, and soul will die? If we continue this push towards the postmodern, I truly believe that that which we control now will end up controlling us, and music.