The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

This story originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.

Here's a handy little trick from the artist's proverbial toolbox: Whenever you find yourself slogging through some new creative endeavor and the results just aren't working, break the work into discrete components and rearrange them in some random fashion. Better yet, have them rearranged by some external process beyond your control.

It's not new technique -- William Burroughs fashioned several of his novels by jiggling the sentences into a nonsensical order. Brain Eno constructed musical compositions where machines or humans play simple melodic lines at varying speeds and intervals, in effect creating ever-unfolding pieces with no set score.

This hands-off approach sometimes gooses flagging art into something more appealing for the simple reason that random rearrangement creates juxtapositions not originally conceived. It removes the artist -- and all his or her tired ideas -- from the process, allowing the components to find their own connections with one another.

Music fans are starting to hap upon the power of this approach, thanks to the simple fact that pretty much every digital music player comes with a feature that plays tracks in random order. Almost all CD players have this feature, but the full power of randomization doesn't make itself known until you subject all your albums to such fragmentation. Then your computer or handheld device can play an ever-unfolding personal radio show, one that offers glimpses into your music you never considered before.

Steven Levy's The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (Simon and Schuster, 2006) portends to investigate the implications of randomization, at least as it is manifested through the shuffle mode of Apple Computer's massively popular iPod music player. Part corporate history and part cultural analysis, the book devotes each chapter to a different iPod aspect: how it was built, how it was designed, podcasting. Other chapters are devoted to Apple itself, the art of the playlist, and how randomization affects listeners.

The reader's copy of the book itself is even randomized, so to speak. After the introduction, the remaining chapters are switched around in various configurations, which may change from copy to copy and which and can be read as standalone entries. But by mimicking the shuffle, Levy only illustrates the approach's weaknesses.

Like many people, I found the power of randomization when I hooked my computer to my stereo and copied all my CDs. Playing music would be less hassle this way -- no getting up to change a CD every 40 minutes or so. If I wanted to listen to Miles Davis for hours straight, I could.

Thing is, I rarely found myself listening to hours of Davis. More often, I just play all the music in a particular genre ("jazz") or even just let the player decide which track to play next. These days the Prince of Darkness is likely to bump up against Biota, George Jones, John Adams, Jill Sobule, or Pavement.

While such jumpiness may at first sound jarring, it flows together surprisingly well. Genres are reduced to little more than marketing terms. You see what Duke Ellington meant when he said, "There are two kinds of music -- good music, and the other kind."

By playing one track after another, you hear similarities between the two you'd never notice if you never played them side-by side. I noticed that buried in the middle of Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" is a smoldering sax and piano interlude that perfectly evokes 1964 John Coltrane; that Philip Glass and Kraftwerk worked simultaneously yet separately to create beauty through bare repetition; and that Blur spent a career sounding like the late-'60s Kinks -- and still didn't measure up, despite the fey production of the Kinks albums.

Of course, randomization goes against decades of thinking about how music should be presented. For the past 50 years or so, the album has been considered a self-contained entertainment unit, originating from an aesthetically arbitrary though technically mandated two 20-minute sides of a 33-rpm record. "That restriction became a ground rule, like the rhyming scheme of a sestina," Levy writes in The Perfect Thing. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sealed the idea of the album as a work of art unto itself, though even by 1967 the album had been increasingly recognized as a platform to present a unified set of audio tracks (Smithsonian Folkways' Sound Effects, Vol. 1: City Sounds) or a single, focused artistic direction (Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music).

Randomization could kill all that, as it shifts the listener's concentration from the album to the track. Tracks you thought were great sound weaker without the supporting context of their host album, and CDs you never gave a fair listen to have a second chance to show their hidden delights.

"It's a looser more adventuresome way to consume music," Levy writes. And to the extent that people download music is the extent the album will be gutted -- how could it not? At 99 cents a pop, buying individual tracks through Apple's iTunes is so much more cost effective than chancing $15 on a CD. How many 75-minute CDs in your collection could be trimmed to 35 or even 20 minutes without loss of impact?

Of course, backlash is inevitable. Tool, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, and Kid Rock have all refused to sell their works through iTunes, expressing the sentiment that albums are meant to be considered as a whole, their songs played in a particular sequence. A cynical observer might see such an argument as a ploy to reap more profit. But classical music fans I know make the same case. Symphonies, concertos, suites, etc., are often broken into individual elements, yet the weight they carry is in how a theme is expressed and explored through successive movements. You lose the power of a symphony when its movements are hopelessly entangled with bootleg Ani DiFranco tracks.

So Tool, et al., have a point -- keeping an album intact ensures a thematic continuity that lasts for more than a few minutes, and brings its own satisfactions, at least to those with attention spans longer than a toddler's. And certain forms of art almost require such narrative suspense -- movies or books, for instance.

Which is why the reason that Levy's book could read in any one of a number of configurations says less about today's crazy cutup culture and more about the weakness of the book itself. In fact, randomization can be a shell game, useful for hiding weaknesses. Consider the Grateful Dead, endlessly varying which songs it played to keep the fans returning. The formula works -- people, particularly youngsters in chemically receptive states of mind, tend to mistake dizziness for euphoria. And keeping the audience guessing is a good way to hide a dearth of new ideas -- or that your heroin habit has resurfaced.

Not to imply that Levy has a habit, unless you classify access to the inner corporate reaches of Apple a drug. The material reads drawn from articles he's written about the company over the past few years for Newsweek, where he is the chief technology correspondent. (In the interest of full disclosure, I work for the same company Levy does, though I bet he never has heard of the PostNewsweek Tech Media subsidiary I labor under.) Obviously, Levy counts Steve Jobs as one of his most valuable contacts for his beat, and this reliance all but assures that Thing treats Apple with kid gloves.

Indeed, parts of the book read like they were taken from Apple press releases. ("With all your music in hand, in an enclosure to die for, the personal experience with the iPod goes beyond mere listening," Levy gushes at one point.) Levy conveniently attributes the power of random play exclusively to the iPod, when in fact it has been around long before Apple's ascendancy in the marketplace. It was the beauty and elegance of the iPod's design, he argues, that bought the idea of mash-up to the masses. This claim is either really confused thinking on Levy's part or a blatant attempt to rewrite history as an offering to the Apple PR team.

Levy also fails to touch upon the many darker issues raging around digital music, some of which, if explored, certainly wouldn't show Apple in the kindest light. For instance, he does not discuss Apple's brutal domination of the digital music market (a fact that worries music industry executives), nor does he spend time on the record industry's nasty tendency to sue music listeners for using file-sharing services to score free music. (Hey, you have to fill those 20,000-song capacity iPods somehow.) He also doesn't broach the topic of digital-rights management, which is the fancy name for the locks encumbered on digital tracks; while put in place to prevent widespread sharing, the technology also prevents users from keeping the songs for longer than the life span of a computer or two.

Instead, Levy's randomized take on Apple's iPod is sunny and slightly dizzying. It's long on hugs and short on critical assessment, which is a major failing of any cultural study, no matter how you try to hide it.

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