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Two Thousand and On-Demand

I am one of those people who is always listening to music. It gets me up in the morning. It gets me between classes and to the next item on my agenda. Pairs of headphones are crammed in all the pockets of my coats, when they are not jammed into my ears. When I’m not hearing it, I’m singing it, humming it, or thinking about it.

I love music. I am also broke. I simply can’t afford to own all the music that I’d like to. I also want to be able to try on new artists and albums and see if I really love them before purchasing. This is where Spotify comes in.

Spotify is a really wonderful tool. Its library is incredibly vast, including everything from my favorite indie-punk artist to the entire discography of a given rock legend. I can listen to almost any album I can think of, in full, without purchasing, only interrupted by occasional ads. I can also instantly share tracks with my friends – which is especially important, since for me, the essence of music is social.

Having so much music, on demand, at my fingertips, more or less for free, is huge for me and for music lovers everywhere. But this kind of availability does not come without cost.

Having heard Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” or Sirius Radio several times, I decided I was really into it and wanted to hear more from the artist. I pulled up the album, Too Bright, on my iPhone’s Spotify app. On the mobile app, Spotify only allows you to shuffle songs. The first that came on from the album was a slow and emotive ballad. I immediately regretted my decision – something about this felt wrong.

Artists order their songs on an album in a specific way, for a reason. Anyone who’s ever made a mix tape or CD knows the importance of crafting the way one song flows into the next. Though I was able to access Perfume Genius’ album instantly for free, allowing myself further exposure to the artist and cultivating my interest in and support of his music, I was also eliminating a critical part of his artistry – that craft, the curator’s hand, the technique that shapes an album as a journey, a story told for the listener. I think of some of the most important albums to me, and if their songs were shuffled out of order: Arcade Fire’s Funeral beginning with “Crown of Love.” In the Aeroplane Over the Sea beginning with “Oh Comely.” Call me dramatic, but it just wouldn’t be right.

We live in a culture of on-demand, of constant access. Smart phones connect us to the internet, and therefore, to almost anything we’d like at any time. On the MBTA, I often see people watching TV shows through their phone’s Netflix app. I’ve been known to watch movies on the treadmill. And of course, there’s the Spotify mobile shuffle, which I utilize just about every day.

Though it can be liberating to have so much media at our fingertips, what we are robbed of is the curated experience. The act of listening to an album start-to-finish, in order, without advertisements punctuating the critical silence (or lack thereof) between songs. The experience of watching a TV show live, as people all over the country do the same. The feeling of sitting down in a dark movie theater to watch an important film, no phone in hand or laptop open, no pauses, nothing but larger-than-life sounds and visuals. (The opposite of this has too often been the case for me; tonight I watched Whiplash while eating dinner with my mom and intermittently texting, and was highly aware of how much more of an experience I’d have if I saw the film in theaters.)

All of this boils down to dramaturgy, which includes consideration of the total experience of a theatrical event. Who talks to you when you walk into the theater? What do you see, hear, smell? What do you read? (What don’t you?) And above all, which theater? Where? Why? Why?

All I can say is thank god for the theatre. It revolves around, thrives upon, and generally demands, an intentional, curated, specific experience. In our on-demand world, where so many forms have been stripped and translated from the communal to the individual, from the ordered to the shuffled, curated sensibilities remain at least in the theatre. Some claim that this may evidence its eventual death – it’s not current enough, not marketable enough, relies on people leaving their homes. But this, to me, only proves how absolutely necessary the theatre is for us. We must hang onto experiences of “total art.” We must celebrate an experience that is holistic, and has the ability to transport us away from our daily, digital lives. We can lay everything else down, and do just one thing. That feels like a powerful concept. Do just one thing. With attention, with intention, and have a complete experience.

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One comment on “Two Thousand and On-Demand

  1. So true. How we need to keep theatre alive. One of the last bastions of communal artistic experience!

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