There used to be this cool comic book back in the 80’s called Aztec Ace, which featured a time-traveling hero getting into all kinds of adventures a la Dr. Who (except he was much cooler). Among other things, he had a massive Wurlitzer jukebox filled with history’s greatest hits. From Gregorian chants to Dion & the Belmonts, it was all in there, the greatest music of all time. I always loved that idea, having a massive collection of music in one package. Of course, back in 1985 no one could have foreseen MP3’s (or iPods). Now everyone can have history’s greatest jukebox everywhere you go, and that’s changed everything.
MP3’s have obviously changed the way we listen to music. But the truly great, overlooked thing about MP3’s and MP3 software is the shuffle function. We’ve all gotten used to it with CDs, but with Apple’s iTunes (or whatever software you poor Windows saps use to listen to MP3’s [Yawn… – ed.]) the random shuffle can be a whole new experience. This is due mainly to the fact that you can create enormous playlists that have hundreds of songs in them. I call my playlists the Ultramix series—I throw the best of everything from Chuck Berry to Stereolab in to one big playlist and set it to random play, and I get the world’s greatest radio station playing 10 hours worth of music, all commercial-free. I burn a copy to my cd-based MP3 player, set that to shuffle, and I’m ready for long trips and the doctor’s office.
An added bonus are the small epiphanies coming from the unlikely juxtaposition of songs, like “Billion Dollar Babies” leading into Tom Waits’ “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six,” followed by Camper Van Beethoven’s cover of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.” And they all seem to fit somehow, even though you’d have never thought to put them together on a mix tape. Or the White Stripe’s “Screwdriver,” Combustible Edison’s “Carnival Of Souls,” and “Gates Of Steel” by Devo. You hear them one right after the other and think, “Of course, it all suddenly makes sense!” And sometimes it’s just the opposite-the songs can queue up in an eerily appropriate way. Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Wilco, The Replacements, and Big Star, in that order. And the Trashmen doing “Surfing Bird,” followed immediately by the Ramones doing “Rockaway Beach.”
One of my favorite sequences recently was a combination of appropriate and unlikely: Talking Head’s “Cities,” REM’s “Don’t Go Back To Rockville,” and “How Near, How Far” by And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, followed up by The Challengers with “Telestar.” I also throw in a handful of random sound clips of movies, cartoons and TV dialogue to spice things up. (Sometimes it’s unintentionally hilarious; you have to hear the hillbilly from Deliverance saying “Now why don’t you just drop those pants?” followed by Social Distortion’s cover of “Ring Of Fire.”) Try listening to music this way for a few weeks and you’ll ditch radio for good.
But there’s more to MP3’s than just random-play novelty. The lesson of the MP3 revolution is simple: technology is starting to give us regular schmoes real power—the power to do it ourselves. I don’t need or want Clear Channel radio—my Ultramix list is exactly what I want when I want some good, enjoyable background music. And it isn’t predictable—when I fire up iTunes I don’t know if I’m going to hear Bob Dylan or the Chemical Brothers. And that scares the crap out of the music industry. Record companies don’t want any change, and as a result special-interest goon squads like the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) are trying to hold back the clock with threats and intimidation. Of course they’ll lose, because the technology is too powerful, and we’re a lot bigger than they are. They should follow the most fundamental rule of marketing instead and just give us what we want, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. By the time the record companies figure out a way to quash MP3’s (if they ever do), we’ll have evolved beyond them again.
In the meantime, I have my MP3’s. I also have a 300-disc CD changer, but it’s just not the same. I use that when I’m in the mood to listen to a whole cd, or just want the best sound possible. But half the fun of iTunes is browsing through my 18-gig MP3 library like a greedy miser, picking out songs for a new random playlist. Which reminds me, it’s time for a new Ultramix list. Let’s see… Thievery Corporation? Everly Brothers? AC/DC? Sure, why not? And maybe a little Weezer…