How do you choose, when there are millions of songs at your fingertips, what to listen to? It’s like being in a supermarket in the ketchup aisle and having 30 million different brands of ketchup to consider. Except ketchup is essentially ketchup – sweet, tangy, acidic, difficult to get disastrously wrong – whereas music is infinitely various, as if every bottle of ketchup tasted drastically and utterly different from the last, as if some bottles tasted like watermelons and some bottles tasted like charcoal and some bottles tasted like scouring pads, and you only had a few minutes to choose and there were no free samples and there were fifty other items on your grocery list.
Of course, people are loyal to their ketchup brands. People go for what they know, pick the same, safe bottle of Heinz off the shelf, play the same, safe song they’ve listened to hundreds of times before. I do this, too. (Though not with Heinz. Hellmann’s ketchup is infinitely superior.)
What drives the choice? Do you follow what mood you’re in? If you’re feeling down – say, because the store ran out of Hellmann’s ketchup and you had to get Heinz – do you play something happy to cheer you up, or something sad to wallow in, or something angry and cathartic to try and blast away your feelings? (I swear this post is not being sponsored by Hellmann’s, it’s just I’m writing it before lunch and am feeling pretty hungry.) That is, do you fall in line with your current feelings and location and situation, or do you try and cut across these things and alter them?
Do you look at your record collection or iPod or phone before you choose or after? If you choose first, you’re choosing entirely from memory: you choose that song that’s been in your head recently, that song that’s always in your head on a permanent loop, that song you were thinking of because you happened to read the words “the wizard turns it on” in a sexy sci-fi novel, that song you read about in that magazine, that song that friend recommended to you. I tend to find that when you choose like this, from memory, it creates the most satisfying immediate hit when you hit play, I suppose because you’re fulfilling a small desire. You crave certain sounds, you satisfy your cravings.
But sometimes you want to listen to something but you have nothing specific in mind, and you find yourself scrolling down hundreds of artists, rifling through hundreds of records. Or if you’re on a streaming service, as people increasingly are, then through millions of records. Sometimes maybe something jumps out at you. Something you’d forgotten was there. Something that feels just right. But more often nothing jumps, nothing leaps, nothing seems to quite fit the moment perfectly, and sometimes it feels like there’s so choice, so much you could listen to, that it’s easier just to do the dishes in silence.
Ruth Chang talks about how difficult choices are actually good for us. She generally means making important life decisions, like who to marry or what job to go for or where to move or which ketchup to buy (Seriously? The ketchup thing again? Go eat something!), but we might also think the same about the entirely unimportant decision of what song to play. It is difficult choice-making, says Chang, which determines who we are as people. When one option is clearly, rationally better than another (that is, when a choice is easy) our personalities don’t really come into the decision. But when two options are more or less equally good, at least on a rational level – say, two songs to listen to – we have an opportunity to make decisions which are really about us, and who we want to be.
There are two ways to apply this thought. The first is to only listen to your kind of music: say, crust punk or bubble trance or Catholic psychedelic synth folk. This becomes your music, your identity. The second way is to listen to all kinds of music, and make this eclecticism a part of your identity: to be open and curious, trying to understand different styles and points of view. The ideal is to do both. To have tastes is natural, and important; otherwise we’d all be the same. But to try to broaden your tastes is important, too, and is connected, however loosely, to developing empathy.
Of course, there are all kinds of systems in place to help us in this specific dilemma of song choice, particularly if you’re streaming. You just have to tell Spotify what mood you’re in, or if you’re going for a run, or if you need to ‘focus’ or ‘concentrate’ or ‘study’, and it’ll play a bunch of tracks to perfectly complement your situation, thus removing all the tricky choice-making from your hands. But I feel like this is cheating a bit.
Because maybe the choosing is actually a part of the pleasure? To listen to something means you have to not listen to something else. If you played every song at the same time it would sound something like Merzbow. Except it would actually include all of Merzbow. It would be pure noise, which is the same as pure silence; that is, to listening to nothing at all. Instead we listen moment by moment, song by song, piece by piece, accepting that we’ll never hear everything, never (to borrow a visual metaphor) get the ‘whole picture’. We can take pleasure in limitations, in choosing to focus on one particular thing, to spend time with it, to pay attention to it, amongst all the chaos and noise of the world.
Or at least, there are different pleasures to listening to music you’ve chosen and listening by accident or by algorhythm. The latter can be pleasurable too. It can startle and arrest. It’s a way of listening out of context, which can make it easier just to hear sounds for what they are, unmuddied by extraneous details. So there are advantages to removing the layer of choice from the listening process too.
Normally I put songs to break up my posts but, heck, I couldn’t choose which to use. So instead I’ve put pictures of shoppers – of people in the act of choosing. You can choose your own soundtrack.