Music is social. It always has been. But is the communal and collective aspect of music overwhelming our personal connection to it?
Last night, the very first award presented on the 2012 Billboard Music Awards broadcast celebrated the Top Social Artist. Justin Bieber nabbed the award, beating out Shakira, Eminem, Rihanna and Lady GaGa (who boasts more than 20 million followers), all who maintain a massive presence on social media outlets. During the show, the hosts encouraged viewers to join the conversation on Twitter. Likewise, this year’s Grammy Awards production seamed focused on generating twitter reactions through controversial performances. NPR music critic Ann Powers says social media saved the Grammys. “Everyone hated it, but everyone watched it,” she writes. “That seems to be the takeaway from this year’s Grammy Awards telecast.” People watched because they could participate.
Long before iPods, hearing music meant attending a live performance. After the invention of the radio, families gathered together to listen to live performances. In the jukebox era, personal selections played for everyone in the diner. Once recorded music became common, listening became more private. Headphones and the Walkman allowed people to listen to music in solitary, even when around others. For most fans, music continued to play a major role in social spheres—bonding with friends over similar interests, trading records, dancing together at concerts, using your taste as a way to identify yourself within a group. But after spending the day with friends at a record store, you could take your new albums home and listen in your room by yourself.
Now, Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” of Spotify activity forces us to participate. We broadcast to friends, family and acquaintances not only songs and bands we like, but also music we may just be sampling, and eventually may find we hate. In a New York magazine article, Nitsuh Abebe writes, “Spotify founder Daniel Ek cheerfully describes ‘a world where music is really about you listening to music and your friends discovering it from you.’ You’d think it could be at least partly about musicians expressing themselves, but we’re being prodded onstage right alongside them.”
Just as Abebe wonders to what degree music can be about musicians expressing themselves, I wonder if we as listeners are losing the deeply personal role music plays in our lives. For instance, every time I hear “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes I’m filled with a sense of comfort and safety. The 1993 track reminds me of being almost 10 years old, falling asleep on the bottom mattress of the bunk bed I shared with my brother, and hearing the single playing on the boombox as my mother cleaned. She played the song almost every night. It became a part of my childhood. Another deeply personal song I will always remember is Lauryn Hill’s “Tell Him”—a tribute to one of my most cherished friends. Even though I heard the song previously, the first time I really listened to the song and connected with it occurred one Halloween night in high school. During an epic Halloween party at a creepy, massive gothic house, my friend confided in me about some dark times in her childhood. We shared. We cried. We found lasting friendship. One hour later, riding home, my sister’s Lauryn Hill CD playing in the car, I heard those lyrics, “Tell him it’ll be alrite.”
These days, it seems as soon as someone connects to a song they post it after only one listen. Do they even really know why they connected to it? Once it’s out there, you read conversations, interviews or even the band’s tweets. The content accessed online colors the way you hear the song. If Facebook existed when I was in high school, would I have posted that Lauryn Hill song? Would people have commented on the actual meaning of song the next day? Would I have spent the next day reading about the artist and all her exploits on Twitter instead of considering what the music meant to me? I’m not saying the increased social function prevents any personal connection to music, but sometimes it feels the social aspect overshadows the personal aspect. As we integrate the social more and more into our musicalscapes, are we losing that personalization of music?
For instance, consider the way we consume music.
“Owning music is a kind of intimacy—not just online-dating your favorite records, but literally moving in with them—which leads you to think that ‘good taste’ is about committing to the right things,” Abebe writes. “In the streaming world, taste is about being intrepid, knowing paths through the wilds and byways of different eras and genres.”
Our model of unlimited access instead of ownership makes the music fleeting, there’s no commitment. Also, with streaming services, your music isn’t quite “yours”—anyone can listen to it. And as Abebe points out, your taste represents your knowledge, not necessarily your connection. Of course social media and the digitization of music creates numerous benefits to listeners, but maybe we should take a step back and reconnect with a song, an album, a band, in private. Do you think my 187 friends on Facebook consider the real reason I just listened to “Tell Him” on Spotify?