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Tuned in and digitally detached

Some four decades after Timothy Leary urged us to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” we’re actually doing exactly that.It’s not quite the LSD-fueled lifestyle he envisioned, though. We’re turning on our iPods, tuning in our own personalized soundtracks and dropping out of the social fabric. Forget human interaction, unless our cell phone rings.For a long time now, I’ve felt like the only passenger on the bus each day who isn’t privately jamming to whatever musical genre rocks their world. Earphone wires dangle from heads like permanent appendages. Leaking strains of high-volume hip-hop and blank stares brand the disengaged.I can hardly wait to join them. Well, except for the hip-hop part.I own an empty iPod. Ripping my CDs onto a computer so that I can upload the chosen tracks onto the device smacks of a major chore – one I’ve been loathe to undertake. It strikes me as another prime example of one step forward, two steps back – my usual complaint about technological advances. It used to be you recorded album tracks onto a cassette tape and viola – a mixed tape you could present to a loved one, take on a road trip, etc. Now, making the digital equivalent of the mixed tape requires twice the effort.It was beginning to look like putting together a workout mix on my iPod would be every bit as unlikely as my actually working out, but then I discovered a new store – iTunes.Snippets of songs I haven’t heard in years, there for the sampling, proved inspirational. Download a tune for 99 cents. Even though there’s a limit to how many times you can burn a song onto a CD, heck, I could buy it again for another 99 cents. Besides, how many times am I going to need “Goodbye to You” by Scandal. Just once – for my best of the ’80s compilation.I spent a whole evening shopping, just to see what was in stock. Rarities and B sides are often missing. So is the Dave Clark Five. But, it was sort of like being in a record store sans one key ingredient – vinyl.In an age where we can share music by swapping portable hard drives and burning CDs, it occurred to me recently that, outside of a live performance, no one really shares music the way they used to – by listening to it together. Now, we all plug into our personal devices and, if not march, at least tap our toes to the beat of a different drummer.I remember, as a kid, listening to a Beatles album on the parental hi-fi with my best friend. We each parked in front of one of the speakers encased in what was, in those days, an actual piece of living room furniture. Every other song or so, we’d trade positions, because the album was recorded in mono – vocals coming out of one speaker, instrumentation out the other. We could have centered ourselves in the room to get the full effect, but no, we had our ears to the speakers. How prescient. Now we stick the speakers in our ears.A couple of weeks ago, I got together with a couple of friends to – get this – play records. We sampled punk 45s and album tracks that will never find their way into the iTunes Store inventory, and devoured the album covers and record sleeves – elements of the musical experience that can’t be replicated within the confines of a CD case.It occurred to me that these records came out before some of my co-workers were even born. My 20-something colleagues are of a generation that didn’t buy 45s and sit around a record player with friends, listening to the same pop hits over and over. They’ve never collected the records that used to come on the back of cereal boxes. Cardboard-backed vinyl – talk about high fidelity.No, they’re firmly rooted in the digital age – plugged into their iPods for a decidedly solo musical experience.And, it’s probably a good thing. That way, if I accidentally start singing along with my iPod, no one will hear me.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail is janet@aspentimes.com.


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