Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ode To Playlists

(This is the first ever guest blog on this site. Enjoy).

by Jessica Gordon

I’m basically incredibly lazy when it comes to music. I love music, I really do. And I think over the years I’ve managed to acquire some abbreviated musical knowledge, and I certainly know what I like when I hear it. But I don’t generally seek out new artists on my own. I don’t troll bands’ online sites looking for free downloads from their new albums, and I don’t read Rolling Stone or Wired much, and when I do it’s usually to look at the pictures and maybe read a few stories. Instead, I rely on my friends to send good music my way. One friend in particular, the author of this very blog, actually, has been sending good music my way for many years now. He’s turned me on to artists like Modest Mouse, Neko Case, Broken Social Scene and many, many more. He likes to tell me that he made me cool, at least musically speaking, because when we met I was listening to the Dixie Chicks and I think Janet Jackson (for the record, still not bad music, just not all there is…). It’s funny, though, because technically I know more about music than he does. I read music, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t; I can tell if someone is off-key or on, and he can’t all the time; I know if something is dissonant or melodic, or if it’s a tight harmony; I know if, unexpectedly, the lower voice is taking the melody and the higher one the harmony. I am not sure he knows what any of this means. Though maybe he does, I’m just not sure. The point is, though, he has an ear for quality music that I don’t. Books? Sure. I’ll read reviews or dip into stacks unknown at the library or the bookstore and come up with some real gems. Movies? Certainly. I’ll read reviews and analyses and find out about directors. I like art-house films and well-made action movies. I’m discerning, I’d say. With books and movies, I know exactly how to recommend the right thing to a person so that he or she will really enjoy it, even if the person doesn’t generally read lots of books or watch lots of movies. I can determine a good fit for those things. But not so with music. In that medium, I have to rely on others.

Since the advent of iTunes and iPods, of shared music libraries, and with how easy it is for anyone with a computer and a CD drive to burn CDs, playlists have become, for me, the ultimate in finding new good music. I love getting a burned CD full of twelve or twenty songs I’ve never heard, by artists I may or may not know. And I love that the list was made (usually) with me in mind, so it’s full of stuff someone who knows me thinks I will like. Some of my favorite songs right now are off of playlists people have made for me. Like “The Swimming Song,” by Loudon Wainwright III. I had never heard of Loudon Wainwright III. (Well, except for last year I saw The Squid and the Whale, so I do recognize his name because he did a lot of the soundtrack for that film.) But the point is, the playlist is perfect for someone like me because I get to sample a little of this and a little of that without spending hours browsing in a music store or listening to tons of music, even. I get to skip right to the good stuff. I know music mixes have been around for ages, way back to the famed mixed tape, but I guess I sort of missed out on that. Maybe it’s because my generation came of age right during the switch from tapes to CDs. Since the technology was new, no one had the right recording devices to burn CDs (remember, if you possibly can, this was at a time when—gasp—a family might have only one computer that all the members had to share, and we used floppy disks…remember those??), but people were no longer really buying or listening to tapes, either. So it is with some contentedness that I am just now fully discovering the wonder of playlists in my late twenties (ugh, how did I get to the “thin side of thirty,” as my friend put it so depressingly the other night, so fast?). Listening to a playlist someone else made for you is like going with a good friend to a restaurant you’ve never been to before, but that your friend knows you’ll love. It’s like going to that little hole-in-the-wall bookstore when you visit a new city because someone who shares your love of books said you’d love it. Someone making you a playlist is intimate, at least on some level, because it implies a friendship or a relationship of some sort. When you listen to it, you go into the experience expecting to like what you hear, and for the most part, I, at least, have not been disappointed.

Now I have playlists to run with, playlists to sit and wait in the airport with, playlists to put in the CD player and turn up loud when I’m cleaning my apartment on a Saturday morning and playlists to put on for that treacherous section of I-74 between Cincinnati and Indianapolis that’s so boring it almost puts me to sleep every time (not to mention that radio reception goes out through a portion of it). One of the best things about playlists is that when you get to know them well, they become like old friends. I have two favorite running playlists at this moment. When I slide on my armband and pop in my earbuds and step out into the day in my running shoes, when I hear the bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum….beat-beat-beat-beat-beat… “Cheated by the opposite of love…held on high from up-up-up above…” everything just feels right. My feet start hitting the pavement in a good, solid rhythm. I feel like singing aloud, but refrain (usually) so people don’t think I’m crazy. For a very long time I resisted running with an iPod. I can be a bit of a purist about some things, and one of the things I like about running outside is being such a part of the world, feeling the wind and the air, smelling the smells, hearing the…traffic…ok, maybe I over-romanticized it—I do live in the city, after all. I still don’t run with my iPod all the time, particularly not when I’m running with a group (come on, that’s just rude), but on more than one occasion, I do feel like the iPod—and playlists—have saved my life, or at least my run. The other day I was forced to run on the treadmill due to the prolonged heatwave we’re having here in Cincinnati in late September, which I hate, and the iPod totally saved the day. As it was, I barely made it 3.5 miles, which is normally a piece of cake for me. Without the iPod, I’m not sure I would have even made it two miles.

So next time I step out the door for a run, and I start to hear strumming that makes me want to shake my shoulders followed by the familiar, peppy chorus of “Let’s Go” by The Feelies, I’ll say a little thanks in my head to the makers of my precious playlists. And remember, all you music taste-makers, keep burning thoughtful playlists for those of us less blessed with a nose for music.


Al said...

I like receiving music myself. Especially pirated music--and I am not talking about "rrrr music"; I am talking about that stolen/bit torrent shit. Feed me--daddy hungry.

Debbie said...

I heard a rumor that this site was going to have a review of Halo 3, is this true?

Alex said...

I'm not completely sold....I like albums. Aren't playlists kind of like a collection of short stories only without endings? Care to rebut? Then again, this past summer I threw a party a put together a playlist that is still being talked about in large circles. Blender Magazine did a story about it. (It was right after the story about Eve's sex tape and right before the interview with Liz Phair where the interviewee tries to goad her into pornography). I've recently thought about making a playlist for my enemies but can't figure out what to put on it. Suggestions are welcome.

Travis said...

Buy a compact disc or perhaps a record.

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