The Perfect Listener (Pt. 2)
oulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
There’s a dichotomy at the heart of writing about music, reviewing it, that intrinsically compromises the music writer: are you listening for pleasure, or are you listening to form an opinion? Because the latter is a different kind of listening, and not one that always engenders the former. Take the new Plaid album, for instance. I was asked to review it, and because of this approached it in a different way to how I listened to the Guillemots album—a record I had anticipated for nearly a year. This can’t be helped: objectivity simply doesn’t exist. You approach every record with a set of preconceptions, expectations, and resignations, drawn from whatever you can; your past relationship with an artist, the quality of their press release, what you think of the cover. All of these factors can influence how you listen to a record, or whether you bother at all.
There’s then a whole other set of factors that influence whether you bother to go back to a record after the first two or three listens. In my experience the records I have enjoyed most, been most rewarded by over time, are the ones that offer a degree of resistance to enjoyment, ones you have to work at, the ones that make you want to go back and investigate, the ones you have to listen to closely and intently in order to unravel. It took me a while to figure out what was going on with Return To Cookie Mountain, for example, but after half a dozen spins the jazzy piano strikes a couple of minutes into “Province” started making my heart swell, and the grooves and drones and such elsewhere started making serious sense and gelling together. I can only imagine coming to enjoy it more the more I play it. Other records hit me hard and fast, and then fade faster. The poppist would say that both are of equal worth, or that the latter is of more worth (why should you have to "work" at enjoyment?), but the poppist is wrong. It's basic economics. Buy cheap, buy twice.
The danger with the way we consume albums as reviewers, though, is that a lot of records might only get three listens—enough to assess importance, influences, catchiness, comparisons etc., but probably not enough to realise whether you’ll want to go back to something in a month’s time. Stuff gets played often enough to be reviewed, and after reviewing we discard many records never to return. Hence something can get a glowing write-up based on three listens, and then be tossed aside, rendering the review, well…a lie.
Utility asks us to consider the purpose of music. It’s more than possible (in fact it’s explicitly stated) that some artists have made music designed not to be actively listened to: just ask Eno. It’s also possible that some artists create music to be listened to by different people in different ways: Britney Spears vs. Arvo Part, perhaps. Whether either approach is right or wrong is a difficult judgement call—after a few years of popism I’m feeling burnt out as a consumer and instead want to feel nurtured, valued, excited, and moved as a listener and as a human being, and the kick I get off Laughing Stock means that Nelly Furtado just doesn’t come close, however good she might sound on the car radio. I can’t be bothered with it because I know from past experience that I’d get maybe two listens to the album and a dozen uses of the single on mix CDs for the car. There’s a stack of iPop sitting on my shelves, albums bought for one or two tracks in order to make mixes or satisfy a short-term craving, and it honestly makes me feel a little embarrassed.
Because being a consumer doesn’t mean having a position of power over suppliers, it’s not about choice, it’s not about deigning where I will spend my capital. It’s about being exploited and marketed to, having desires tweaked just so, satisfying them short-term, and new desires taking their place. I’m a music fan and listener, not a consumer, or at least I’d like to think so. You don’t consume a meal, you eat it. You don’t consume a record, you listen to it. There’s a reason virulent strains of tuberculosis are referred to as “galloping consumption” and it’s not to do with “increased free market choice”.
Utility is important to me. My record collection isn’t just a collection, isn’t just shelf upon shelf of ornaments. It has to have some use, to give something to me. I have to be able to listen to it, even if there are some completely unlistened-to parts and some parts I will listen too less than once in a blue moon—the bits I do listen to often, or seldom but always intensely, make up for that.
But different people use their record collections in vastly different ways. Increasingly format governs usage—digital archives streamed off MP3 players, vinyl crates used for DJing, CDs used in car stereos. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” cliché from forty years ago rings truer and truer with each passing day. In 2006 the most important thing about music isn’t the notes or the rhythms or even the artists—it’s the formats, the modes of distribution. We’ve become format fetishists. Perfect consumers rather than perfect listeners.
I suspect that a lot of the problem, if it is a problem for people beyond myself (and it might be, because Bob Dylan seems to be onboard now as far as whinging about sound quality, and therefore being able to listen, goes), is a combination of choice and gluttony, both spiralling outwards from a degree of moral relativism that affluence and a degree of physical security bring. If it doesn’t kill you, you can pretty much do any bloody thing you choose to do, and no one can stop you, because it’s your choice and in late-period Western Capitalism, choice is paramount. Choice is freedom. It’s OK to be obese to the point of heart-disease as long as you choose it. It’s OK to buy loads of records and never listen to them, because you chose to buy them.
I’ve caught myself doing it, not just with records but with books and DVDs too. It’s some kind of nesting instinct, or some kind of… retirement fund of cultural artifacts, things that I can read, watch and listen to “when I have the time.” The problem is that I never make that time, and so these “investments” gather dust and ridicule me from their positions on my shelves for spending more time buying records than enjoying records. And I imagine this is pretty common.
I stumbled across a quote recently from Jacque Attali, who was an advisor for Mitterand amongst other things, from something he wrote called Noise: A Political Economy of Music:
People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear... Transforming use-time into a stockpileable object makes it possible to sell and stockpile rights to usage without actually using anything, to exchange ad infinitum without extracting pleasure from the object, without experiencing its function.It’s a simple equation—there can be no perfect listener if we don’t listen. The perfect listener in this case is replaced by the perfect consumer, who doesn’t listen to anything at all, because why bother? I've made £50 in the last couple of weeks by selling old Cooper Temple Clause, Christina Aguilera, JC Chasez, and Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster albums second hand.
I had intended to include a lengthy passage on literary "model reader" theory drawn from the likes of Umberto Echo, Roland Barthes, and obscure Cuban author Jose Lezama Lima, who, in his novel Paradiso, attempted to create the model reader for the book within its own pages. I was meaning to ruminate on the idea that every book attempts to create its own model reader by changing each empirical reader who delves between its pages, and transpose this idea to records—broadly speaking, that each record tries to create its own perfect listener, each and every time someone listens to it, simply by the act of listening. Only we don't listen properly anymore…