Monday, June 27, 2005

Another invaluable avenue to prejudice...gone. Jesus built my hotrod, indeed.

The iPod's dirty little secret
By Mark Pothier | June 26, 2005

IT USED TO BE EASIER to judge people unfairly. A cursory scan of their record collection revealed secrets. Telltale copies of REO Speedwagon's ''Hi Infidelity" were known to wither budding relationships overnight. Soul-deep conversation and physical attraction could not compensate for the nagging doubt planted by ''Frampton Comes Alive." ''I must have been really drunk at the time" did not explain away Air Supply's ''Greatest Hits."

By the late 1980s, CDs began to overtake vinyl, and cover art shrank, making closer inspection or sharper eyesight necessary. Now, the popularity of Apple's iPod has further accelerated the disappearance of visual clues to who might be compatible or, at least, safe. Getting next to a 1.67-inch backlit screen requires cooperation or intimacy, and where's the fun in that?

CD towers, sprouting from living room floors like design-school projects gone haywire, demanded to be critiqued. No condominium in 1989 was considered furnished without a 6-foot-tall, 72-CD capacity rack made of spiraling wrought iron. From top to bottom, they read like psychological profiles. Unlike rifling through a medicine cabinet, there was no guilt associated with this kind of examination. Demure, born-again type has ''Cat Scratch Fever"? Check exit accessibility. Self-proclaimed jazz aficionado's ''Kind of Blue" still shrink-wrapped? File under ''fraud who favors Kenny G."

And it was about more than content. CDs in alphabetical order, sorted by genre, haphazardly placed, without jewel cases - they sounded out a person before a note played.

Yes, bookshelves similarly serve as portals into personalities, but they often mislead. Required-reading college books with uncracked spines, for example, say nothing about a person's true habits (though ''Finnegans Wake" does look lovely against distressed pine).

CD choices seemed less calculated, more telling, and because they were clunky and costly, the average collection was small enough to make a quick verdict feasible. But iPod has changed the rules. Its storage capacity, up to 5,000 songs, allows consumers to mix whims and impulses with commitments. At 99 cents a track, everything is disposable, nothing has to matter. It is a jumble out there.

Someone might order a slice of The Kinks' ''Picture Book" because they heard it in a Hewlett-Packard commercial, not because they wanted an introduction to Ray Davies, one of the 20th century's finest pop music composers. They can contend that a download of ''Logical Song" followed a viewing of the film ''Magnolia," not an embarrassing enthusiasm for Supertramp. In the old days, mere possession of an album by the shrill British quintet was akin to indictment. You had to go to a store, pick the thing up, and contemplate handing $15 to a cashier - premeditation, clearly.

The iPod ''Shuffle Songs" function compounds the confusion: What to make of someone who allows a computer to program their listening choices?

Something has been lost, besides graphic designers' jobs, as our musical choices have gone from public displays to private stashes. But something also has been gained. Today, the iPod has induced a kind of hush all over the world. Those ubiquitous tiny white earphones have replaced many a boom box and subwoofer. There is more cacophony than ever and most of the time I can't hear a thing. Ted Nugent never sounded this good.

Mark Pothier, a senior assistant business editor at the Globe, once played keyboards with the Chicago-based band Ministry. E-mail mpothier@globe.com.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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