Music, Technology, and Discovery

My sparkling red portable CD player arrived in the mail, bought with an Amazon gift card that my uncle mailed me for a birthday. I was thrilled. I slid the AA batteries in the little opening on the bottom, shut the clasp, and popped Michelle Branch’s Hotel Paper onto its wheel. I was listening with those headphones that fit over your head but are way too small for your ears. They were popular in 2003.

Now, 15 years later, I still have that CD player buried in the bottom drawer of the green desk sitting in the room I occupied during my childhood. It’s scratched and barely functioning, as you would expect from the CD player an eight year old used to learn what it means to love discovering music. Because that’s what having the portable CD player did: it let me listen to music, on my own, by my own volition. It was the way in to discovering sounds. Discovering art.

Every year since we have tried again and again to streamline this process of discovering music. MP3 players gave us the ability to make it even easier. We didn’t need to lug around our CD carrying cases if we could just put all of our music onto a device that fit easily into our pockets. And we could get the music anywhere on the Internet, which was so much easier than getting up and going out to a record store and hunting for gold. We could discover more, faster, sleeker.

I wanted no part of it. Ever the contrarian, I sat in middle school while all the other kids got iPods and earbuds with my portable CD player and headphones and my favorite recording of Debussy and Ravel String Quartets. I would go to Border’s Book Store and browse CD’s, picking up the ones I liked. I thought I was unique. But in searching for uniqueness by going against the grain of technological growth, trying to signify your difference by living in the past, I was not living the present beauty of musical discovery.

In our push to make every aspect of life smoother, easier, quicker, we have not lost the excitement of discovering or listening to music. Spotify, while it has its issues, is always showing us new artists and bringing us new sounds, with “discover weekly” playlists and mixes made special for you, with all sorts of songs you may never have even found in a record store because the artist is so small. That excites me. There are real concerns to be had with how much of our lives now exist in a virtual world, how dependent we are becoming on living in a reality that’s not really real, that’s something each person creates for herself. But being able to find endless music is not a bad thing.

It was April break, early high school. I wanted to start listening to what I thought was “cooler” music than just the French impressionists. I took a trip to New Haven, CT’s record store called Cutler’s (it’s now closed) and bought Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and I listened to it, feeling the freedom of what I felt when I first bought a portable CD player. And that freedom didn’t disappear when I loaded the music onto my iPod classic. In fact, it just gave me the impetus to want to find more music to love. And I’ve been doing that ever since.

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