Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

A Sonic Sample

My post about Lexy Benaim's Kings of Leon review got a comment from Joe Levy that alarmed me more than it probably should have. Whole thing's worth reading, but here's what got me.

No one listens to music on a sound system anymore. This gross generalization (I have a million of 'em, including "no one watches television on TV anymore") is an overstatement meant to reflect a generational truth, which is that stereos are no longer in fashion. A five-speaker surround-sound rig for your TV (which is used to watch DVDs and play video games, not -- as I've previously stated -- to watch television; that's what Hulu and Torrent are for), that's worth having. But big speakers for music? No thanks.

Now, I have long been well aware that MP3s and their various players have privatized music listening, as Joe goes on to explain and my post mentioned as well. But for some reason--even though my own daughter stopped using her boombox years ago, inspiring us to remove it from our perpetually cluttered living room--I'd never made the leap to Joe's gross generalization. As a critic, I depend on earphones to expand my listening time--crappy little ones, though I now own a decent pair for travel. But beyond the occasional self-evident Dud, where the act of criticism is putting the name of an album in a list, I find it very difficult to write about a record without having heard it over my perfectly adequate but hardly high-end sound system. Partly the issue is sheer audio--depth and presence more than detail. But more important is that for me music doesn't fully become music until it approximates a social fact by existing outside of my head.

The thought that most young listeners feel no such need--that at best they hear music in an aural environment that consists of their desk (though admittedly computer speakers can be jacked up to boombox proportions, so music fills a dorm room or a bedroom)--so troubled me that I thought I should do some rudimentary research. So I sent out an email to three recent classes I'd taught and got responses back from 11 students in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music--obviously an atypical sample, since every one of them takes courses in sound engineering--and seven nonspecialist liberal arts types, all but one interested in arts journalism, six from Princeton and one from NYU.

Only one of the REMU students didn't have what I would call a good sound system, and even that student used a boombox at home. Three or four hooked high-quality studio monitors up to their computers, and three or four went more high-end than that--higher than me. Those who used headphones used good headphones, and several avoided them altogether to protect their ears. I thought a few rather heartening comments from these sound-conscious twentysomethings were worth quoting.

A constant music listener said he's "been known to save new, unheard music till I get home to my nice speakers, instead of instantly listening on the lower-quality iPod and its little earbuds." Reported another student of his communal living situation: "Between three other suitemates and two friends next door there are four good sound systems, all of which get louder than what my parents have at home. . . . I'm the only musician, there's one Spanish major, one English, two economics, and one Shaman (Gallatin lets you make your own major)." Said the most serious audiophile in my tiny sample: "It's fun to be with a small group of friends and actually put on a record. Rather than for quality, there's something comforting in the process of selecting an item to pay attention to for the next forty minutes with no constant interruption in sight." Finally, one monitor user had a somewhat less encouraging observation: "Around my house where 9 other guys live, listening from the atrocious MacBook pro speakers is very common, then tiny standalone speakers with a subwoofer is the next most common."

In a way, though, the liberal arts responses were also encouraging. Three of the seven did the heaphone-computer speakers thing, but only the one who's least interested in music limited it to that--one indiephile allowed as she sometimes played CDs in her home boombox "for nostalgia reasons," and a recent graduate who used to have a classical music show on the Princeton radio station waxed nostalgia about his family's '92 Nissan Pathfinder "with tremendously large speakers in the back": "the sound was awesome." (Here let me interject that I love to play CDs in the car, which becomes, I guess, a space simultaneously internal and external--especially in the dark, with nothing else to think about and my wife offering comments beside me.) But the other four had the modern version of the hi-fi--a Bose in one case, but more often good speakers hooked up to the computers where most students now store their music. What this says about CD sales proper is another matter. But at least in this sample of younger listeners with some sort of commitment to the arts, complete atomization and miniaturization is not yet the rule.

4 Comments

By Adam on December 15, 2008 9:43 AM

Listening to music in a car has always been ideal for me because, as you say, it's both an external and internal experience. It also allows you to be in transit without moving away from the sound, and I think music and motion go well together. Stillness and music do, too. In the car you get both. One can create their own music video, freely associating the music with what surrounds them, using it to heighten an experience of the outside world. Or, you can disconnect from your surroundings, re-route certain patches of ugliness. It necessitates immersion.

If we didn't have decent sound systems, our ability to share music would be greatly hampered. I'm on vacation right now with my girlfriend, and am somewhat disappointed that the MacBook Pro speakers are so tinny. I brought all sorts of new music with me that I was hoping to share with her, and still can to a certain extent, but these speakers really flatten out the sound. Instead of filling a room with ambience or providing rhythmic stimulation, the music seems isolated in a corner. It doesn't hit you; you have to hit it. I'm almost happier with the way music videos on the hotel room's TV sound. Though, I'm not sure if that's because the computer plays songs I know well less deeply, and the TV plays songs I'm less familiar with.

I can't say how many times I've visited a MySpace page to hear music for the first time and left unimpressed, later to gain appreciation for that same music when heard in a different context, with different sound quality. I know some folks with different ears claim to be able to separate wheat from chaff from any speakers at any volume, but I can't.

Also, though solo grooving obviously holds its pleasures, I think we sometimes need to know that there are at least a few of us with our ears tuned to the same places, and headphones or depthless speakers cannot alone foster that communal spirit. What would become of dancing, cooking, or sex, without righteous speakers?

By tru blu on December 18, 2008 9:45 AM

Well, it's hard for me to imagine folks tooling around their apartments, dorms or whatever with earbuds on, which I think is why Apple introduced the iPod Dock not too long after the iPod. That was clearly addressing a need.

By The Reality Kid on January 2, 2009 6:25 PM

I'm surprised that this hasn't occurred to you before. I believe -- and I emphasize the word "believe" -- that your sampling of younger folk is atypical and that many more listen to music mostly through earphones and/or computer speakers than not. But I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding the importance of externalizing the listening experience, i.e., getting it outta your own head.

By Phil Nieske on January 9, 2009 7:27 AM

I just think that mp3s offer lower sound quality than even a cd which is late 70s technology. I've heard super audio cds and dvd audio that sound great but they don't catch on. My guess is that most people don't like to listen to music in their living room anymore and their mobile system won't play the higher quality discs. I recently began playing vinyl records and now remember why I loved listening to music in the first place, the way it sounds and the way it makes you feel. Mp3s are killing the recording industry by being cheap and convenient with a flat sound. Too bad with all the technology they can't come with an analog format besides vinyl.

Articles, Dec. 14, 2008


Inbreeding The Vanguard of Something