Sunday, May 17, 2009

With an iPod iAm iSolated

Forgive me for being late to this particular feast, but I have just started listening to music on my iPhone. Podcasts, sure - who doesn't like a bit of Melvyn Bragg while walking through Eaton Square? But music - what can you learn from that?

Putting aside my insanely auto- (or should that be audio-)didactic desires, last week as I took my morning purposeful amble from Victoria Station to the Kings Road, the only exercise I get of a day, I put my iPhone onto shuffle.

This caused several problems. When you have a couple of symphonies and a couple of operas and a couple of musicals, all of which have plots or 'plots', hitting one aria or movement or song is both likely and irritating, the music impossible to be appreciated outside of its context. (That's why even a CD of Sondheim's greatest ballads isn't as good as seeing one in a complete show.) You could say the same for album tracks, but the order of those isn't always vital for me.

The other main problem was my complete obliviousness from the world around me. As anyone who has seen Eaton Square in the past year knows, there are more workmen and scaffolding and flying beams and poles than can be avoided, incidentally a testimony to the lack of a credit crunch in SW1. After being swept away by my music and nearly by an opening van door, I decided that being in my own world might need a modicum of reality, or at least perception.

What intrigued me most about the iPhone/iPod experience was the way in which I realised not just was I oblivious to the outside world but it was oblivious to me. I don't mean to say that every man, woman and child on the street is regularly looking at me, but now they had no idea what was flowing into my ears (assuming I wasn't one of those people who likes to perforate their and everyone else's eardrums with their music).

You think you can tell something about someone by their appearance: black leather trenchcoat c.The Matrix = Goth. Jack Wills hoodie and pyjama bottoms = Chelsea teenager. My black Gap raincoat and smart grey suit = young and on the make journalist. And so forth.

But the music may confound these perceptions, even if we can't know it. I listen to everything from Johnny Cash to Rufus to (shame, I know) Beverly Knight (only one song). What does that say about me, versus my clothes? How do I know that the Goth isn't listening to Mahler's Second? The Chelsea teenager to Ligeti?

This is, of course, already true: you can never tell what is going on in someone's brain, but this is pointed out by the iPod, which is an active sign that they are engaged in something. I like to think that the iPod - following the Walkman and minidisc player - is an invitation to mystery, a public challenge to perception.

Perhaps the Goth is listening to Slipknot, the Chelsea teenager to the grand high commander of Jack Wills' latest podcast. But you never know.

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