Remember when men were real men, women were real women, and albums were…well…not singles?
For that matter, remember when singles and EP’s were released in specific distinction against an album? In days of yesteryear, there were a few albums by intentional artists that were not just a collection of many songs, but a musical and lyrical journey that had a definite beginning, middle, and end…a plot, if you will. Albums by the likes of Bob Dylan or U2 or Pink Floyd, or any number of amazing musicians and lyricists that aspired for more than pop fluff, whatever their genre, to make a complete work. You didn’t just listen to a group of great songs with those albums…you went along for a ride that had a departure and an ending point.
I think we’ve lost that in our current mode of a la carte shopping. Recently I was browsing iTunes upon a recommendation from a trusted blog to check out a new band. I liked some of the tracks, and some had too much of a folk feel for my taste, so I purchased the tracks I liked and left the rest. Don’t I have the right for that? Certainly. Is it a good idea? Not necessarily. I have a feeling that the entire album might be a story, that it would take me on a specific journey were I to have purchased all of the tracks and listened to them from beginning to end. My excuse was that I didn’t want to spend the money on an entire album…yet I would spend money on a novel, knowing up front that I won’t like every chapter, simply on the principle that a plot takes us places we don’t like to go in order to weave a complete story. I wouldn’t just buy a few chapters from a novel…I wouldn’t get the entire experience.
Yet this is the sort of consumerism that drives our perusing of art. I choose music as an example partly because it is (arguably) the most dominant and easily accessible medium available today, but the ramifications extend far beyond this. Continuing with the example, though, I think that many artists surrender artistic merit for the sake of a business model, focusing on releasing individual tracks that will hook a listener, because that individual track is more likely to be purchased than an entire album.
I suppose, however, that there could be something said for the discovery. I’ve ended up purchasing albums from artists that I discovered through Starbucks free “Pick of the Week” program, albums that I likely wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Similarly, I wonder if the reader of Salinger’s chronicles of his fictional Glass Family, reading them as individual short stories, would have made the immediate connections that were more accessible to me reading them collected in Nine Stories.
Of course, the immediate literary answer to this is the poem, which is often meant to stand alone, at least when printed in literary journals. Yet, even here the poem is often a “chapter” in a larger story when read in the context of the collection in which it was intended.
A friend recently referred to Twitter as “a 160-character literature sniper.” His comment, while perhaps a bit over-stated, leaves me to ponder the result of our “sound-byte” culture, where one of the reasons for independent, briefer snippets of art removed from their context aren’t always just to serve as samplers, as it were, but often the recourse of those too impatient or too distracted to read an entire book, or to listen to an entire album by one artist (remember those friends that used to incessantly change the television channel or radio station?). At least full length movies can still hold us, although the descriptor of “epic length” is enough to keep some from the theatre.
What stories do we miss by not taking the time to take in the journey in its entirety? Is this perhaps metaphorical, indicative of our tendency to compartmentalize ourselves away from experiencing anything at its intended depth in the name of experiencing many things in the same time frame? Does this pose a warning to a mindset of quantity’s perceived supremacy over quality? Perhaps it does.
Or, perhaps I’m just over-analyzing.
We do miss stories… and even when we don’t miss the plot, we miss the context that gives it meaning. Neal Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”) predicted this increasingly shortened attention span, as well as the value shifts that would occur along with it.
Unfortunately, he didn’t provide any solutions. :-/