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Friday, December 29, 2006

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Shuffle: decoding my musical genome

My new ipod Shuffle may be my very favorite possession next to my ibook. Thanks, Mom! It goes a long way toward making up for the Christmas I didn't get a Ken doll!

Look at it. Isn't it adorable? Smaller than a book of matches and holds 240 songs. And when I get tired of those 240 songs? Why, I just plug it into my ibook and fill it with 240 more! Remember when the Sony Walkman first came out? Remember how we thought that was THE SHIT? (If you don't, what the hell are you doing here? Go back to and blog with your own kind.) Remember how it played music recorded on actual tape? And took alkaline batteries? And how the headphones went over your head? It seems a lifetime ago. Several times a day, I glide a finger over the controls of my shuffle and murmur, "To think that I should live to see such wonders..."

It validates my faith in humanity. If we can put 240 songs and 12 hours of battery power in a matchbook, my brothers and sisters, we can save the polar bear.

I am enjoying the shuffle play feature. I've had itunes on both the ibook and the kids desktop PC for some time now, but I have preferred to stay on top, so to speak. I say what to play and in what order. But since my new toy has no display feature, I am effectively blindfolded. Surprise me, I say, as I slide the power switch on.

The result is that I am listening to tracks I haven't heard in a while, and hearing familiar songs in a new context. It has me thinking about how passionately I love music, how my tastes have evolved over the years and how the soundtrack for my life gets synced and updated through my relationships, the deepest of which always center on music.

Some key influences:

My parents. Mom and Dad had a massive LP collection. This is where the parameters got established, in terms of how eclectic you could be. It was heavily weighted toward folk and singer-songwriters. Lots of Leonard Cohen. The Chieftains. Gordon Lightfoot. Ryan's Fancy, with whom my Dad did some work. Woody Guthrie. Bob Dylan. But there was also Beethoven and Rod Stewart and Waylon Jennings. Probably my most beloved record of theirs was Jesus Christ Superstar, which was a bigger (and healthier) influence on my theology than 12 years of Catholic schooling. Album art was also hugely influential. I partially credit my sexual awakening to a cover photo of a stripper in a g-string and pasties on a Tom Waites album. Looking beyond recorded music, it should be noted that I grew up in a home and a culture where it was not unusual to have live music sessions in the kitchen. It was also the era of the folk festival and I was a veteran of them by the time I was thirteen.

Bob. I doubt Bob reads this blog. But if he did, and I left his name off the list, he would be sure to call me on it. Bob and I knew each other in diapers, and in the summer of 1981, he introduced me to the Beatles. Just in the nick of time, since I had just that week bought my very first record with my very own money and it came from K-tel. Someone saved my life that night. I became a total Beatlemaniac twenty years after the fact, and was largely insulated from the new wave.

Mtv. (Or the Canadian version thereof: MuchMusic/MusiquePlus.) I was fifteen years old the summer of Live Aid. No further explanation should be necessary.

Kirk. I know Kirk doesn't read this blog. As much as I plead with him to get with the industrial revolution every year during our annual Christmas Eve phone call. It is a travesty that a master of the mixtape does not imix. Kirk and I dated off and on for several years, and he would send me mix tapes from college that would make me cry and think very hard for a whole day or two about breaking up with whatever full-time drug-dealing, part-time ski-instructing boyfriend I was living with that year. Kirk was discerning about music, if not girls. Introduced me to Frank Zappa. Turned me onto Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty. Made me listen to Ween. When I called him up and told him I was running off with a guy I'd met on the Liz Phair BBS, he thought about it carefully, and then said, "Well, at least it wasn't PJ Harvey. You'll probably be okay." I took it as his blessing.

Erika, my favorite cousin. Erika has a blog. Irrationally, she doesn't want to expose her personal life to total strangers en masse. But if you ask her nicely and give her a copy of your drivers' license, she will let you read it. Erika is inadvertently responsible for the lives of my three children because she is the one who handed me a tape of Exile in Guyville one day in her car and said, "Here, try this." Twelve months later I was separated from my very nice life and living in a one room flat in the middle of Mexico with this guy. Remember when Paul Simon sang, "Someone could walk into this room and say your life was on fire"? Liz Phair did that for me. Thanks, Liz. I would think you would at least drop by and babysit once in a while.

Patrick. Well, obviously, a marriage founded on Liz Phair is going to be interesting, musically and otherwise. Our entire courtship is preserved in email and mixed tapes. Patrick introduced me to the Carter family and John Prine and the Rolling Stones. We discovered alt-country together, and for years, it was all SonVolt, all the time. Then I decided Jeff Tweedy was cuter and peppier than Jeff Farrar and there was a bit of a schism. But we can always agree on Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

Me. Recently, I've been making a dedicated effort to tune into contemporary music. I programmed the DVR to record the top 20 video hits. I use the browse feature on itunes. I am trying to keep my tastes from atrophying. I don't think top-forty pop music is any worse/better than it was when I was in the target market. The Blackeyed Peas amuse me. (Blackeyed Peas in the studio: "I know! Let's write a song about your ASS!" Blackeyed Peas back in the studio next year: "I know! Let's write ANOTHER song about your ass!") The first time I saw Modest Mouse on Saturday Night Live, I looked at Patrick and said, what kind of funky art-school shit was THAT?? and ran to itunes to download more. I have been known to shake my thang to Kellis. I think Keane's "Is it any Wonder" is the most uplifting, sweeping, infectious pop song I have heard in years. I believe U2 is the world's second greatest band (after the Beatles) and Bono and the Edge's recent interview with Dave Stewart's Off the Record is an amazing window into the minds of two artists at the top of their game as well as a testament to the power of a creative enterprise to draw others into its service.

Somebody's always saying how rock is dead. It may be, or near to it. But good music isn't, not as long as your mind is open.

So what's on your playlist?

C'm'on, surprise me.

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Blogger Natalie said...

I'll respond to this when I get home. I was in Little Rock today and should have had the laptop with me to email you and see if you wanted to meet at my old hangout (Community Bakery on Main Street). Damn it though, I didn't. We leave on Sunday, so maybe in April we can get together and talk about being immigrants who are married to Arkansans!
Also, Liz Phair is the shit! And I think Keane is one of the best bands to come along in a while. Their music does something very good to me.
Yours is one of the only blogs I am reading while I'm not at my own computer (I'm in Stuttgart, and I prefer reading my blogs at home on my own computer) but I like your writing very much.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

I would have most definitely been there (and although it may appear otherwise, folks, I do not just drop everything to go meet any old person I meet on the internet). I actually wanted to invite you & the family to our New Year's bash, but since you are headed back anyhow, maybe next year. :)

8:47 AM  
Blogger JKC said...

It is because of you that I have the Beatles on my Ipod. For this I will always be grateful. I was at your house the day John Lennon died. You and Kelly were crying I didn't know why or who he was. You guys fixed that by getting me to listen to everything from the Beatles to the Wings, my own musical interests began that day. Thanks!:)

9:24 AM  
Blogger Erika said...

Thanks for the once-removed credit for your new life and children. Yes there was Liz, but don't forget Rage Against the Machine.

Modest Mouse are one of my new old favourites as are the Shins - please check them out if you haven't already... Oh Inverted World is my favourite. Click on videos and play the first one - New Slang.

Rob and I were watching Garden State and we looked at each other and laughed when this was the song that Natalie Portman told Zack Braff (blogger) that this was a song that would change your life. It was like the moment John Cusack said the same sort of thing in High Fidelity about the Beta Band song, Dry the Rain.

I concur on both counts.

As for my most recent play list - I'll post it on my blog.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Jen, I'm sure you remember the scene correctly, but we were probably bawling about it three or four years after the fact. I'm not sure I knew who Lennon was in '80, when he died.

I do remember the day Elvis died. I didn't know who he was either, but our nanny that summer, a distant cousin named Alverna, cried all day.

Sweet Cous, given what happened last time, I'm not sure I should follow up on any more of your recommendations. I had forgotten how we used to rock out to RATM. I used to play it at full volume in the car as I pulled into my parking spot at the Board of Trade in navy suit and high heels. I thought I was such a rebel. lol.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous jen zug said...

I've been obsessively listening to Sufjan Stevens for months now. So much so, that Ruthie now sings, "all things go..." along with him. I like all of his stuff, but the Avalanche CD has been in my car.

5:26 PM  

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