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Hey, man, slow down
I was listening to the latest episode of the All Songs Considered podcast, in which the critics discuss the best and most influential music of the 90s. It's a great show, and reminds me of how much that decade shaped my taste in music.
The discussion inevitably turned to Radiohead's OK Computer, and as they played “No Surpises” I was taken back to the time that the album came out. It's become such a classic (heck, it was classic 10 years ago), it's easy to take it for granted.
But I remember vividly the day I heard OK Computer for the first time. I was working at the city pool, lifeguarding during the day, hanging out with friends until late at night, and sleeping through the mornings.
One morning I was taking my time getting ready for work, fixing my breakfast/lunch with MTV playing in the background. By the late 1990s people were already making fun of MTV for not playing videos anymore, but there were still some time set aside for new music, and some of it was even good.
On this particular morning, as I was getting ready to leave for work, I went to turn off the TV when I saw a strange animated video set to an exciting guitar riff with what sounded like the voice of Thom Yorke. I was stunned. At a time when the Internet was still in its infancy and most of my musical knowledge came from the radio, I had no idea Radiohead had a new album out, or even that they were still together. After all, it had been over two years since The Bends, which now seems like a ridiculously inconsequential amount of time. But you must keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, those two years fell, for me, between the ages of 15 and 17, a period of tumultuous growth and expanding awareness of the world and popular culture. Second, during those years most of the bands I listened to hadn’t released more than one or two albums, and, though it was obvious that The Bends was something original, there wasn't any indication that Radiohead would still be making revolutionary music 14 years later.
Anyway, I sat in rapt wonder as Paranoid Android, which had seemingly come out of nowhere, revealed itself to be a bizarre rock epic that traced its way through multiple tempo and melody changes, with roaring guitars one moment and quiet, eerie choruses the next. I was going to be late for work, but I couldn’t stop watching until the song was over.
When it eventually wound down to its finale, I raced to work with those otherworldly guitar riffs circling around in my head. As soon as I got off work seven hours later, I went straight to the music store to pick up the CD. The rest of that evening I spent listening to the album again and again and again. I gave it my full attention. I pulled out the CD booklet and read the lyrics along with the music. I studied the artwork and read every printed word, looking for anything that would help reveal the themes of the music.
I probably listened to OK Computer at least a hundred times after that. I took it with me to swim meets, debate tournaments, car trips, everywhere. Sometimes I would turn my headphones up as loud as I could and just focus on the music, listening for a note or a bassline that I hadn’t noticed before. There is probably no album I have listened to as thoroughly as I have listened to OK Computer, and there probably never will be.
This kind of surprise discover and subsequent immersion will never happen again because the way I listen to music has changed. I no longer find out about new releases from the radio or MTV: I read about them months in advance, often in periodic updates from the bands' blogs or message boards. On the morning an album comes out I get on Amazon, download it while eating breakfast, and listen to it on my iPod on the way to work. Rarely do I have time to just sit down with an album anymore: I’m far too busy (sometimes with legitimate work, but also with frittering away on the Internet).
Even when a band does do something unexpected, like Radiohead releasing their eighth album for download last week, It’s big news for a few days, until the next thing comes along. Thanks to the Internet I buy and listen to more music than ever before, and I buy more new releases than I ever did previously. But with this increased speed and availability of information, a great work like OK Computer, instead of being the album of the year, now becomes merely the album of the week.
Don’t get me wrong: I love what the Internet has done to music. I love that I can read about an obscure artist on a message board, visit their website to hear some tracks, and download their album, all in the course of about ten minutes. I feel more connected to important developments in popular music, and I have been able to enjoy artists I never would have heard about previously. But I wonder if the rate at which I consume music is preventing me from really immersing myself in music the way I did with OK Computer.
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It’s a very interesting topic to analyze and reflect over, the effect the internet has had over the music business. But you could do it for nearly all business. The invention of the internet has completely modified the way the human race functions in half of the world. It’s interesting.