Recently I was listening through Radiohead’s album In Rainbows when I realized that lying on the floor listening to a record would perhaps be perceived as strange by other people my age. I wondered if I was perhaps an anomaly in a world of “shuffle” and “playlist” lovers. And it’s not the vinyl thing. I know most people don’t listen to vinyl anymore, but the question stands as to whether we have stopped listening to albums entirely.
The album is such a simple concept: 12ish songs that relate thematically or aesthetically. Digital music and streaming services add to the ease with which listeners can access a huge variety of artists, which contributes to a mainstream culture that doesn’t listen to full albums. iPods/iPhones, digital playlists, the shuffle option, and a focus on hit singles are all sending the album into extinction. In bygone times, vinyl forced listeners to buy the full album and listen to every track. There was no iTunes-style buying just the hit single. Yes, you could buy tapes and 7” singles, but still it was far less prominent and with a tape you still had to fast forward or rewind to get to the song you wanted.
What else is to blame? Our attention span and patience are decreasing. YouTube allows us to find any song in seconds, and the death of physical music allows us to carry thousands of songs in our back pockets. “I rarely sit and listen to a full album, mainly because I do get bored and antsy after more than like four songs,” remarked Karson Daecher ‘16. In many ways, this new way of buying and listening to music hugely empowers the listener. We can pick the songs we like, put them in playlists, change the order and listen to them whenever we want. Artists need to work harder to capture our attention and make us listen through their whole album because we don’t have to.
Yet as Uncle Ben reminded Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The ability to listen as we please leads many to treat music as something that accompanies other things, not as something that deserves time and attention. When asked to comment on how often she spends time listening, Karson Daecher said, “I rarely listen to music while not doing other things—probably the time when I most ‘just listen’ is when I’m driving, so I’m still not focusing 100% of my attention on music. When I take the time to listen to music while not doing other things, it’s usually because I want to listen to a specific song or a few songs, and so I won’t take a long time to do it.” Daecher is not alone. Many of the students I interviewed agreed that they rarely spend time just listening to and appreciating music.
Young people, more and more, are listening to playlists that include many songs from different artists. “I almost solely listen to individual songs in a playlist. I like the variety that a playlist gives you, as well as the fact that you can shuffle playlists to listen to them in a different order each time you listen, to keep things different,” said Daecher. “I probably listen to playlists that I make more often than full albums, because I like to compile all my favorite songs. I listen to full albums when I want to really fully appreciate the art of the collective pieces,” said Mia Simon ‘16.
It does, however, seem like this might be changing. “Listeners today want musicality in their music and the best medium to display that is in an album,” commented musician Spencer Barnett ‘19. He continued, “I think that dissecting the album and all of its attributes is the only way nowadays to really get to know an artist’s skill as a songwriter. If they can put their songs in an order that makes sense, then they know what they are doing.” Nick Michael ‘18 echoed this sentiment: “Listening to individual songs from the album takes away from the story that lies within the lyrics, and is more for personal pleasure. I think for this reason, I like to pay ‘respect’ to the artist by listening to the album in whole at first and then making playlists to curate songs to my own liking.”
Some artists still strive to make cohesive albums of songs meant to be listened to one after another, with actual transitions between songs and motifs carried throughout the album. Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West have gained notoriety for releasing more conceptual albums. Albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and Yeezus have been lauded as truly standalone pieces. As Barnett mused, perhaps this trend towards more conceptual albums in the mainstream shows a shift back to the style of vinyl and masterful albums like Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks.
The playlist empowers the listener, but it also takes away from the album as an art form and in some ways disregards the work the artist may have put into creating a cohesive album. Artists today have to work a whole lot harder to make albums that are good enough to capture our ever-narrowing attention span and to make us want to listen all the way through.