Shaking one’s head in disbelief at what “the kids are listening to these days” is no new concept, but we look back and laugh trying to imagine who was offended by the Beatles singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” A lack of understanding across broad generational gaps is to be expected, but at the current rate of technological advancement I found myself shaking my head at “the kids” when I was only fresh out of college myself. It wasn’t about the music they were listening to, but how they were listening to it…
When I was just a young pup, my parents gave me a Fisher-Price record player and some children’s sing-along and story telling records. My ears starting bending heavily toward music by 6th grade, and in 7th grade I was enthralled by Punk Rock, a genre which has always been a proponent of vinyl records, largely due to its affiliation with rabid vinyl collectors. Those Fisher-Price speakers bore a lot of abuse over the next couple years in my bedroom.
Downstairs in our living room, locked up safe and sound beside my parents’ old vinyl collection was their top-of-the-line Sony record player. As I became more responsible and my parents came to accept that they weren’t going back to their records as much anymore, I was able to convince them to let me move the Sony up to my bedroom. I spent countless afternoons listening to their records and my own, hearing many nuances for the first time on the far superior system. Thus began my long career as an “audiophile.”
In high school, my friend’s family got a Bang & Olufsen sound system. I’d never seen anything like it. Whenever we were alone at his house we would take it over, playing all our favorite CDs and marveling at the sound quality. I was astonished to discover instruments I’d never noticed before in songs I’d listened to hundreds of times. I never wanted to listen to my CDs on a boombox again. No one had even heard of MP3s.
The iPod was first introduced during my freshman year of college, but it was at least a year or two before people really started snatching them up. Meanwhile, I was lugging massive Case Logic CD booklets back and forth across the country and laughing as my friends and roommates struggled with abysmal quality downloads on sites like Kazaa. I even tried a few myself, but was immediately repelled by the static-y digital files ripped at 128kbps – if you were lucky.
Of course, I eventually caved. We all caved. The iPod was/is the most irresistible consumer good…maybe ever. Its capacity expanded to the point where it could support much larger (higher quality) MP3 files. I had had enough of lugging CDs along when travelling or jumping from one coast to another at the beginning of each summer and fall. I went out and bought some very nice headphones from Bose, ripped my CDs at 320kbps, and life was good.
But something went terribly awry. The No Child Left Behind Act made no provisions regarding digital audio education. Kids continued to download super-compressed MP3s (even from iTunes) and listen to them through heinous “ear buds” that come with each iPod. Radio DJs started airing compressed audio, while some records were even produced with compressed audio samples. Soon, this convenient space-saving format had become the normalized mode of listening to music.
Recently, a Stanford Music Professor’s informal annual study has revealed some shocking news: young people actually prefer highly compressed audio! If you’re unfamiliar with terms like “compression” and “bit rate,” allow me to offer an analogy or two. Choosing compressed audio is like preferring to look at a painting or watch a movie with foggy sunglasses on. It’s like preferring to smell flowers when you have a cold or eat your favorite meal after burning your tongue. Compression eliminates a recording’s character and in radical cases, can virtually reduce the song to its basic melody and nothing more. High and low frequencies are eliminated or distorted, and a hazy layer envelopes the track.
I can understand that an average listener might have a hard time discerning between certain bit rates, but for anyone to actually prefer lower quality audio is baffling. However, this revelation adds an interesting twist to the rising use of Auto-Tune in mainstream pop records: forget about all this gibberish about it being an “artistic choice” …at 128kbps through iPod earbuds, you can fake-it-til-you-make-it. Kanye, Britney, and the rest of the Top 40 rejoice!