Friday, December 15, 2006

Very, very short lifetime listening lists: recorded music on a ‘desert island’

The first post is a request for very short lists of 'favourites' in a genre established long ago: the books one would want if stranded on an island in the South Pacific. While it would be difficult to play recorded music in such a situation, the idea of extending one’s wants in the face of limited choice transfers nicely to music. Suppose for some reason not specified, for example, that you only could listen to one recorded song for the rest of your life. What song would it be? Or, less radically limited but still quite limited in the scheme of things, one album?

For one song, my choice in this hypothetical multi-lemma long has been ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys. ‘Sabotage’ is far from my favourite song; if I were inclined to list my favourites from top to bottom, it would be far down on the list. But when looking into what I would want from the one and only song I would hear for the rest of my life, this particular one combines numerous desirable elements. It’s a fun song, but it has an edge too. You could project an edge upon it if you so chose. It’s funky yet air-guitarable. And while I really am not a car guy, I often have enjoyed blasting this one riding in an automobile. It’s got a beat; it’s cool.

Speaking to some friends, I thought to extend the idea to albums and compilations, because for a music lover these too present very restrictive regimes of choice, while obviously less restrictive than for one song only. I devised the following categories. They are to be understood as mutually exclusive. That is, don’t make the list with a view to having all the music in all categories available. Think of each item as an independent possibility, wherein it must be chosen above all competitors as the only recorded music you will hear for the rest of your life.

1. One song: the only song you get to hear for the rest of your life. By a ‘song’ I mean a packaged song on some album, a maximum of one side of a standard LP.

2. One ‘standard’ packaged album of roughly 45 minutes. Back in the day, a standard LP was roughly 45 minutes. Some were a little longer, some a little shorter. No ‘bonus’ tracks from CD re-releases. So if this were the only music you were to hear for the rest of your life, what would it be? Not an anthology and not a boxed set. A published compilation from one artist seems to me OK, as do show tunes albums and ‘split’ LP’s such as the classic American hardcore LP from the San Francisco punk bands Code of Honor and Sick Pleasure. No way though that I’d want to listen to one punk album, and nothing else, for the rest of my life.

3. One packaged album of any sort, but not an anthology and not a boxed set. A maximum of 2 CD’s or three records. What would you choose? Some people, on reflection, might give the same answer as in #2. Here, I suppose, one might allow re-releases with bonus tracks – but would this represent what you really would want?

4. Ten packaged songs, any such. Constraints same as for #1. No weird composites created by computer, etc. So what 10 songs would you choose for the rest of your life? Would they all be long?

5. A compilation of songs, any monkey business with or without computers allowed, a maximum of 90 minutes. Would you choose lots of short songs, or a mix?

Of course, there have been lots of ‘favourites’ song lists on the Internet as elsewhere, but few have asked the existential question of what you would choose if the crunch came. As I’ve suggested before, the choices need not be your ‘favourites’.

As a science guy turned to philosophy, I naturally thought of what process one might follow to make these choices if one had the time and inclination to bother. Also: are there rational consistency requirements linking your choices? For example, would that one song for now unto eternity occur in that 90 minutes you might have instead, again unto eternity? Maybe, maybe not. Some rational considerations:

1. The one song you want to hear forever need not be your subjective favourite.

2. The one album you want to hear forever need not be your subjective favourite. Nor need it include the choice for #1. An entire album might have other, better means of evoking the emotions you are looking for in music.

3. You might have an entirely different choice for your best double album than for a single. Or perhaps there is some single album so right for you that you would pick it for #1 and #2 both. On the other hand, rationally this choice should be either the same as for #2, or else a longer album.

4. If you had your choice of 10 songs, you might be inclined to take one or more selections from the album(s) you might choose for #2 or #3. You might be inclined to take mostly long songs, because there is more there. But if you are like me a fan of pop music, broadly construed, there are a limited number of really, really long songs. For a classical music fan, on the other hand, the particular pieces chosen might not be the longest because that would induce frustration at not hearing the rest of a symphony.

5. In the case of 90 minutes, go nuts, it would seem to be rational to favour at least some of the content of albums you’d pick for #2 and #3. If you were particularly attached to some album, I suppose, you’d take it in lieu of a compilation.

I’m going to step back to make my choices, but I’ve already announced my choice for #1 of course.

No comments: