Shuffle: Use and Meaning


Far more than my co-writer David, who just jumped into his posts about shuffle, the discovery of shuffle changed my life suddenly and dramatically.  Perhaps it’s for that reason that I feel compelled to write this essay before I publish posts on a couple of songs that recently came up on my shuffle.

I was a late adopter of the mp3 player.  I am neither a Luddite, nor someone who runs out to buy the next gadget the moment it comes out.  But I am someone who first invested thousands of dollars in a vinyl collection, and next a CD collection, and who reacted to the invention of a new music distribution technology with skepticism and annoyance:  I don’t need this, no one needs this, this is all about finding a new way to make money selling a new thing to me. 

Obviously, this was stupid.  In fact record companies are having a comparatively hard time making money now that music files are so easy to download and copy, but I also have another excuse for missing the boat:  fatherhood.  From 1979 to 2003 I probably spent more then 10 hours a week listening to music intensively, and another 30 or more listening in the background.  When Ruth got pregnant, other things occupied me, and for the first two plus years after Nora was born on Halloween 2003, I was often too sleep deprived and or disengaged with the outside world to listen attentively.  This is the moment when I really fell out of touch with what was happening in new music, when, as I have previously remarked on this blog, I dropped from hearing 100 current albums every year to 30, when I lost touch with the larger subcultures through which I got a lot of my recommendations, when, in short, I became old.  It is also the couple of years when someone like me would have been expected to buy my first mp3 player.

I finally took the plunge and bought an iPod in February 2006, having become convinced — because my business travel schedule was increasing intensively – that having a small portable device on which I could load dozens of records at a time would be to my advantage.  Once in my possession, it took me about three and a half minutes to discover the completely obvious:  that the iPod solved a completely different problem for me.  It provided a form of listening that I had actually craved, without knowing it, for probably two decades.  It gave me the ability to get the kind of variety I had played as a college radio DJ in the ‘80s, all with music that I already liked, passively, without having to choose what was coming next. 

In fact, having long given up on the radio, shuffle allowed me to listen passively to a far greater assortment of good music then I ever imagined possible.  I know many people who find this strange, but I actively enjoy getting George Jones and Thomas Mapfumo and Blackalicious and the Mekons and Men Without Hats and Sonny Rollins right next to each other, and not only because they sound very different, which is obvious.  I also actively like the fact that the list I just made includes all-time favorites (Mekons), decent folks with a good album (Blackalicious), and trivial music that barely makes the grade (Men Without Hats).  Precisely because it is passive, passive listening isn’t listening to your favorite music in the world.  When I want to hear Call the Doctor, or Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall, or London Calling, they moves me to tears and/or action, which is why I list them as my favorite records of all time.  They are not passive experiences.  Yet when I want to hear “The Safety Dance” or “She Blinded Me With Science” or “Hallaback Girl” – all of course on albums I don’t and never did own, yet all songs I value having in my life – I want them in a random mix that also includes “Spanish Bombs” and “Use Me” and “Good Things” and 300 tracks in African languages where I know the guitar line but couldn’t tell you the title.

These days about three quarters of the music listening I do these days is shuffle.  A quarter of the time I listen to albums, and every now and again I listen to a shuffle of a particular artist rather than a specific album.  The albums I do put on from beginning to end are either new music I am unfamiliar with – as I write this I have on not shuffle but rather Wyclef’ Jeans Carnival II, which I am listening to for the first time – or ones demanded by my mood and the alignment of the clouds at that moment.  When I’m not motivated to pay attention to something new, nor in a mood that requires some particular favorite, I put on shuffle. 

Shuffle is not a “better” music listening experience then my favorite records, but I enjoy it more then the typical record that placed eighth best on my end of the charts for 1983 or 1997.  Just as importantly, shuffle is the means to rediscover those eighth place finishers of the past, which are awfully good albums that I may not have listened to for three or five years because between new music and records I like even better, who has the time?  As a result, a whole bunch of great stuff by the Tom Robinson Band that I’d almost totally lost touch with became part of the texture of my life once again.  Collections by artists like Gregory Isaacs, which I never listened to as collections, became spectacularly useful once, because nearly any song on his two disk best of will light up my life for three or four minutes even though two disks will bore me over two hours.  And if something comes up that just doesn’t belong there I can always delete it.

Shuffle is, then, a way of life, the most perfect form of listening for an older person who loves and thinks about lots of different music.  Shuffle gets you to go back and pay new attention.  It may be that the reason I can have music on constantly again is because I once again have the space in my life for things other then my job and the immediate needs of an infant.  But the rediscovery of the importance of music in my life is mostly attributable to shuffle.


2 Responses to “Shuffle: Use and Meaning”

  1. 1 David

    Gregory Isaacs is a perfect example of an artist that will always work better in shuffle. Unless you connect deeply to him, even his very songs tend to run a little similar, and it often doesn’t matter which one you hear. But, right, in shuffle it’s nearly always going to be a welcome change, which is the point of shuffle. I initially rejected shuffle because not only had I invested money in albums, I’d invested time in first mixtapes (about 60 of them, all but the last three or so made between hooking up with my future wife and the birth of our child about five years later, neither of which are at all coincidences), and then mix-mp3-CDs, which were like mixtapes but ran 150-180 songs rather than two sides of 15-20. With mixtapes, I would sometimes segue two tracks of similar rhythm, not with fade-mix technology I didn’t have, but by stopping and starting with no break, so the flow of rhythm never stopped. At rare best, the songs would change in the middle of each other’s drumbeats. When I went digital, this changed to mere sequencing, but I still took such care to get that right that shuffle just seemed dull. But even the best sequences can run a little predictable after a while, and so eventually shuffle tempted me. But I find that shuffle is largely seasonal with me. During the fall, when the bulk of new interesting albums come out, I don’t shuffle much. But now, when the industry is relatively dormant from indie to what’s left of mega, shuffle makes most sense. It’s not a definitive, revelatory experience for me in the same way it seems to be for Kenny. Also, for various reasons I may or may not get into at some point, while I use the ipod 5-star system, my list of 5-stars is a lot longer and therefore less definitive. But I don’t feel the need for it to be otherwise. My list of favorite songs, albums, artists is and always has felt less definitive or necessary than it has for Kenny, and I’m cool with that too.

  2. thanks much, brother

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