Fellow writer Jordan Gamble’s piece on the allure of the repeat button, published a few weeks ago, brought to light the dominant music trend of our generation: the preference for tracks over albums. This raises a good point about how we measure success in various mediums of entertainment. For all of music history, the album has been the primary metric by which to judge a band, but its visual counterpart, television, operates with multiple units of analysis. With today’s music lovers’ increased ability and desire to hear specific tracks, does playlist-favoritism mean a “televisioning” of music?
The album continues to remain the dominant unit of measurement in music — that is to say critics overweight album-quality to song-quality in their assessment of a particular band. Yet our generation’s immediate-gratification norm and the exponential increase in track accessibility made possible by the Internet shakes up this orthodoxy. Music listeners today possess unprecedented access to the songs of their choice and multiple web tools with which to build playlists. Music streaming programs like Spotify and Grooveshark allow listeners to take from albums and build musical art of their own, and while playlists are far from a new concept, the ease with which they can be created is new. For many music collectors, this ability allows for the creation and promotion of playlists that feature yet-undiscovered tracks that put the listener ahead of the popular-music curve.
By contrast, television operates with three distinct units of analysis, yet critics do not make the distinction. On TV we see a swath of good shows that could never be assessed by the same set of criteria.
Take for instance Law and Order, 24 and Lost. Every episode of Law and Order, the longest-running crime procedural drama in history, contained its own narrative — viewers needed no prior knowledge of the characters’ backstories, only what was given to them in a single episode (i.e. the crime, the investigation and the trial). If you really loved Jerry Orbach zingers, you could watch literally dozens of non-sequential episodes and stay entertained.
By contrast, 24 necessitated a greater attention span. Despite its entertaining episodes, the show’s narrative arc spanned a television season and the show required an audience engaged from episode one to episode twenty-four. Viewers who joined the show in medias res missed the backstories crucial to the show’s plot. How did Jack Bauer arrive at this predicament? Who’s the real terrorist again? Is Elisha Cuthbert always that annoying?
Yet a third and entirely different animal was Lost, which can only be judged fairly as a series. The show’s narrative began in season one and died in season six, and to grasp everything the writers wanted to convey required watching each season in between (even the unwatchable middle two seasons). Yes, entertaining episodes came and went, but the show required serious loyalty and was heralded at the time for its bold return to the “serial drama” format a la Twin Peaks of the early 90s.
There it is: episode, season, and series — television’s three units of analysis. Scientifically speaking, how can one output have three completely different and completely viable means of measurement? I suppose that’s why it’s art.
Unlike a band, a series can dictate its unit of analysis — a difference that may disappear in the years ahead. It’s possible that bands could become track factories, continuously releasing songs as they churn them out.
This won’t happen for three reasons: first, artists want to make a bigger impact than a track (or a non-sequential series of tracks) affords. A band’s popularity may spike with one good song, but its members know that in order to secure a place in history, they’ll need to play by history’s rules. If music’s unit of measurement were to change mid-game, how would we compare current artists to the bands that preceded them?
Furthermore, critics won’t let it happen. “Album of the Year” is still more coveted at the Grammys than “Song of the Year” because good albums require greater talent, and artists and music media alike recognize this distinction. The craftsmanship, production, and narrative of an album reflect greater consideration on the part of the artist and provide a more holistic measurement of the artist as well. Good songs may make an album, but good albums make a band.
The final reason is more topical: a resurgence in vinyl. With the era of the CD over and albums on Blu-Ray still a nascent idea, music lovers need something to collect. Vinyl not only sounds better, but album covers themselves are pieces of art. The grassroots vinyl groundswell continues to grow, and enter any music store in America and you’ll find records stationed at a prominent post ready to greet you.
Music, unlike television, deserves the same standard unit of analysis and the standard should remain the album. Though playlists are a fun way to interact with music and chronicle a period in time, the album remains the most sensible way to measure a band’s success. If musicians begin to think in terms of tracks instead of albums, the challenge of weeding out good bands from bad bands will become even more difficult in the years ahead.
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