Shuffling My Way Out of the Musical Story

Of all the things for which I’m proud of my kids, their taste in music is at the top of the list. Both boys might be interested in a Beyonce or Rihanna, but only if they don’t have to listen to either one sing. I’m equally happy that they both are as baffled by Justin Beiber’s popularity as I am.

It’s true that they might listen to some  tunes with a little more bass than I might like, but for the most part I can count on them to hook me up with some Mumford and Sons, Black Keys, or Blue October when we are riding around together. My older son even spent a little bit of time last night looking for a little Van Morrison. We can always jam to that little band from LaGrange.

As you might imagine, the love-fest doesn’t always go both ways. My wife and I, eclectic music lovers ourselves, are just as likely to listen to classic country as we are rock and roll. I’m a jazz fan, also. Some nights are just made for Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Sonny Rollins, or the Bird. I can’t drink enough to enjoy rap or heavy metal (and I’m fairly certain they would say the same about jazz.)


Click to see scene from High Fidelity.

My wife and I are from the age of cassette tapes. It was, we might call it, the mix-tape era. Late nights sitting by the radio, hitting record, pause, record, trying  for that special set of songs that might speak to a particular mood. Or a particular girl or boy. Once I got a little older with some disposable income and a car, I made it my mission to have a tape from every letter in the alphabet and a stereo with dual cassette players.

As we head toward Valentine’s Day, in some ways I miss that era. While we certainly had favorite songs, listening for that song required a commitment to the whole album. Sure, you could lift the needle and try to find track 5 but you risked scratching the end of song 4. You might, if you had time, fast forward the tape, guessing at the time so you didn’t  have to rewind. Of course, the more you moved back and forth, the more likely the spool got loose. Nothing hurt worse than pulling Prince’s Purple Rain out of the cassette player inch by inch while the machine tried to eat the tape.

I don’t blame Steve Jobs, not entirely. The Ipod has revolutionized music. When I was a kid, I knew I liked rock and roll. My wife loved country. Those choices defined a part of us. Today, my kids like everything. They buy songs not albums and they create playlists when they are feeling productive and let Genius do it for them when they are lazy. They get to skip the bad songs and their Ipods are, in essence, simply a “Best of”compilation. They are a little but country and a little bit rock and roll, but they are also a whole lot of everything else.

And that’s kind of a shame. Great albums, like books of poetry, should tell a story. Certainly, we can pull individual songs or poems and enjoy them out of context, but there’s also something about knowing how the song after speaks to (or against) the previous song. We might hear a plaintive cry for revolution, followed by a sigh of discontent at failure. An well-made album speaks across a range of emotions, coupling the music with the album cover and liner notes, to capture a moment in time. They also have hidden gems that don’t get radio play, but reveal emotions or musical rifts that don’t appeal to the general population. How many of us have favorite songs that no one else has ever heard?

Now days, we listen to the songs out of context, relying on the crazy algorithm of “shuffle.” George Jones might sing about roses followed by Guns and Roses. It’s discordant in a way that might reflect the eclectic state of music, but rarely captures a consistent emotion. In some ways, we might be more efficient and we have fewer bad songs, but when every song we own is the “best” song, we miss out on some intangible comparison. It’s those “bad” songs, the unpopular ones that fill the necessary space on the album that creates the rest of the story. In some ways, it’s like starting a novel, but stopping after the first chapter.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no musical snob. I’m as comfortable with a little Warrant (“Cherry Pie) as I am U2 (“A Street with No Name”). I can sing along with Billy Idol or chill with some Miles Davis. But I find myself missing the days when I suffered through one bad song so I could get to the next one. That anticipation, the comparison, created some context that I think we miss listening to music today. I have nearly 3,000 songs in my library (my son has almost 5,000) and I realize, as I listen to them shuffle around (Elvis followed by the Beastie Boys–talk about a culture shift) that I’m missing something. I’ve taken the storytelling away from John Mellencamp and turned it over to some mysterious electronic system disconnected from the larger story.

I have, in essence, shuffled myself out of the musical story.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Shuffling My Way Out of the Musical Story

  1. momshieb says:

    My kids recently introduced me to “Spotify” and now I listen to radio stations designed for my taste; I have to say, I no long miss those “mix tape days”!

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