And All That You Hear: Mastered for iTunes

Apple announced today a new service or product or category or something called Mastered for iTunes. You can see the thing for yourself in iTunes at this link courtesy of The Mac Observer; here is the description from Apple if you don’t want to bother reading it there:

Mastered for iTunes means these albums have been specially tuned for higher fidelity sound on your computer, stereo, and all Apple devices. Browse a range of music across all genres below, and keep checking back as we add more music that is mastered specifically for iTunes.

What this means is anyone’s guess, at least until people prod Apple for details and if Apple deigns to respond. Most likely they’re just compressing the tracks to make them sound louder and punchier. This would make them sound worse rather than better, especially on an iMac or a pair of pack-in iPod earbuds, but that does seem to be where modern tastes have landed us. I don’t suppose I will ever know, as I’m not going to re-buy any of my (relative few) iTunes purchases to compare old and new versions.

What caught my eye was the categories of music available in this new format. You have your Jazz, your Classical and whatnot. And then you have this:

Tastes come and go, but any format meant to appeal to serious audiophiles has to have the Floyd catalog. One day, music players may be able to stream music directly into our brains, leveraging the mind’s extraordinary sensory powers to make you feel as though you are within and surrounded by the music, inhabiting it in every fiber of your being, every nerve ending ablaze with it. And no one will buy it until you can play Dark Side of the Moon in it.

Edited the title to improve the Floyd reference. I can’t believe I got that wrong.

The Beatles Meet Cassius Clay, February 1964

Today Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish linked to a new tumblr called awesome people hanging out together. It lives up to its name. There are classic photos everyone knows, and quite a few I had no inkling of. It’s cool to see Jimi Hendrix greeting Janis Joplin (I can’t link to the photo itself) backstage — for all I know it’s the first time they ever met. Maybe the only time. Or Michael Jackson pretending to punch Mr. T — honestly, can you will yourself not to click that link?

One thing I was expecting to find, and did, was this:

There are lots of pictures of the Beatles clowning around with Cassius Clay, as he was still known then, and this one and the variations of it are the best known. It might not occur to you on seeing it that the Beatles and Clay had no idea who each other were. The photo opp was arranged by their respective handlers, who had some inkling of what it might mean to bring these two phenomena together: the British invaders who were taking over American popular music, and the African-American dynamo who, not content to redefine the sport of boxing, went on to create the template for mass-media sports celebrity — he had already started doing it when this shot was taken.

We see this photo now and marvel that it happened, that these five people ever occupied the same space together. It’s like an improbably real version of those cheesy prints that show Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe hanging out in the same pool hall. The Beatles and Muhammad Ali, to give him his proper name, are titans, figures who stand outside of popular history. It looked a little different to viewers back then. The Beatles were a teenybopper fad in February 1964, when they went to visit Clay as he trained for his first title fight. No one, perhaps not even the Beatles themselves, realized how pivotal their presence would be as the 60s took their strange, epochal course. And Clay was something of a nine-day-wonder himself, a braggart expected to have his clock cleaned by Sonny Liston. Probably a lot of people simply wanted it to happen, wanted to see the loudmouth get his comeuppance, just as a lot of people waited, and waited, for the Beatles to fall on their faces and prove how shallow and fleeting their presence in the culture really was.

But the Beatles went on to prove that rock music could expand beyond anyone’s preconceptions, taking politics, manners and culture along with it. And Ali proved not only that he was a great fighter — indeed, that he was as great as he said he was, which hardly seemed possible — but that a sports figure could be just as culturally radical, just as transformational, as any artist, politician, philosopher or pop musician.

It hadn’t happened yet. No one was seeing it coming. This is a photo of the moment before the plunge — before everything changed.

Song and Dance Men: Dylan at 70

The old man enters the club and finds his place at a small table near the stage, taking a seat opposite an empty chair. He is short, wiry, and diminutive and a little absurd in his black embroidered cowboy shirt and dark pants. His thin face is sheltered by a wide-brimmed hat; beneath a long nose is etched a pencil mustache. The eyes, when they emerge from beneath the hat brim, are narrow and seem pressed into a semi-permanent squint; it might be tempting to call them sad, but for the way they swiftly and piercingly take in their surroundings. They dart to and fro through the club, noting the mostly empty tables and the waning daylight streaming in through a solitary window, before settling on the stage, where the evening’s first performer is ambling toward the microphone.

He is young, almost child-like, with round cheeks and curly close-cropped hair. Dressed in jeans and a coarse denim shirt, clutching a guitar with unclipped strings winding off the tuning pegs like whiskers, he might be mistaken for a roadside ragamuffin, but the grin gives him away, even more than those babyish cheeks do: a grin of knowing impetuousness, a charmer’s grin, a grin that knows luck is on its side, or fate or destiny or whatever you choose to call it. Yet how to account for the contrast between the puckish demeanor and the voice? How does someone barely distinguishable from the average small-town twenty-year-old — for it is apparent to the keen observer that the hardscrabble mannerisms are an affectation, given away with a subliminal wink — sing so forlornly, so emphatically and so unaffectedly of things he could never have experienced? The words he sings are infused with the morality and vision of an Old Testament prophet, strained through the vocabulary of an itinerant brakeman. He chides and insinuates and accuses and finally takes it all back onto himself: Ah, but I was so much older then. Always his voice prowls among the words like a hunter nosing for prey in the rocks, investigating dark corners, overturning and exposing hidden things, ignoring what lies in plain sight. It remakes old sayings and never utters the same word in the same way. Not a conventionally attractive instrument, but one that seems to say, Would I be saying these things, in this way, if they weren’t true?

This performer soon gives way to a new face — and the transformation is shocking. In place of the fresh-faced, Jimmie Rodgers-like troubadour now stands a dandified Mod in a tight-fitting striped suit, a wild nimbus of hair radiating from his head like sunbeams, his sallow face guarded by a pair of dark glasses. But the most noticeable transformation — before he starts to sing, that is — is the Fender Telecaster guitar slung high on his chest. He begins to pick at it tentatively, his long-nailed fingers not quite used to the guitar’s weight and action. From the shadows, he is joined by four other musicians, and this ensemble explodes into a roaring barroom blues, tough and loose and fearless, that batters the walls of the club. The gangly singer steps to the microphone and cuts loose in a voice like a police siren amplified through a Marshall stack; he howls, wails, croons, giggles, moans, an unfathomable conviction undergirding everything and holding it together. The words are as arresting as the voice — in fact, the words don’t seem as though they could be delivered any other way. There are torrents of imagery, as though a hundred years of newspaper headlines, shared memory and tall tales were compressed into some cultural singularity before bursting out again, coalescing into a fractalized landscape where Beethoven, Jack the Ripper and Ezra Pound rub elbows with gamblers, old widows, strutting commanders-in-chief and the unnamed lost and lonely. There is jarring silliness, surprising pathos and mystifying juxtapositions of time and place. And most piercing and memorable is a question, thrown out to the audience like an unanswerable taunt: How does it feel?

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My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)

Recently my 160 GB iPod classic began showing signs of advanced age. I would fully charge it, play it a bit, leave it to the side for a day and return to find the battery nearly depleted, sometimes so low it wouldn’t turn on. I began to think it was time, that this device had finally reached the point where it could be allowed to retire gracefully.

I bought this iPod, my third, shortly after the “classic” designation was first introduced. I was thrilled: this was the first iPod large enough to hold the entirety of my music collection, freeing me from the burden of curating playlists and trying to second-guess what my tastes would be on a given day. (I have largely re-assumed this burden with my 32 GB iPhone, but that is another matter.) It did not trouble me at the time that, merely by calling its former flagship product a “classic,” Apple was signaling that the iPod’s glory days as a music device were behind it. A classic is something beyond the need for evolution or change, something that provides the same pleasures over and over, something — if I may get momentarily pretentious — more associated with memories than hopes.

So, back to my ailing iPod classic. I had some extra money and, what’s more, an impeccable justification for replacing my current model. Except I dragged my feet. I looked at the refurbished models on the Apple website and noted with approval that I could save quite a bit of money buying used. Gradually it dawned on me that I didn’t want to buy a new iPod. Not because of sentimental attachment to the current one — though I love Apple technology, the devices themselves are completely fungible to me, and I have no hesitation in dumping my current object of affection for something new and improved. The problem is that the current iPod classic really isn’t improved from the model I bought in 2008. Today’s classic supports Genius playlists and … I’m not really sure what else. There is certainly no difference of any substance. I can’t think of another Apple product so little improved over so long a time. But then, why improve a “classic”?

I see the logic. Apple is about iOS devices: the iPad, the iPhone and its bastard offspring, the iPod touch. The iOS platform is Apple’s chance to directly influence the evolution of an entire new computing paradigm, in a way they didn’t quite do with the Macintosh. They’d be crazy not to put all of their eggs in that basket. And let’s face it: mp3 players are so five years ago.

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The Next 30-Day Song Challenge

  1. A song you play solely to annoy your spouse
  2. A song you would want played at your disbarment hearing
  3. A song that makes you churlish
  4. A song that fills you with a nameless dread
  5. Your favorite sea-shanty or prison work song
  6. A song that comes to mind when you hear the word “concupiscent”
  7. Your favorite obscure song that you trot out to prove you were into a popular band way before anyone else
  8. A song you used to have as your answering machine greeting back in the Eighties
  9. A song that was forever ruined for you when you discovered your mother also liked it
  10. Your favorite song about architecture
  11. A song you would have wanted to hear in the last scene of The Sopranos other than “Don’t Stop Believing”
  12. A song you can no longer listen to after seeing its title tattooed on some douchebag’s arm in a sports bar
  13. Your favorite song by a band with three or more consecutive vowels in its name
  14. Your favorite song combining Phrygian modality with lyrics about fucking
  15. A bad song you were introduced to by someone who said, “it reminds me of you”
  16. A song you would like to take back in a time machine and play to Vlad the Impaler
  17. Your favorite song by a woman whom you suspect has some really hot piercings
  18. A song played by your cousin in his shitty bar band, the one that still plays “Sex on Fire” in every goddamn set
  19. A song you would use to corrupt a child
  20. Your favorite song by an artist who used to be cool before she had kids
  21. Your favorite song by an artist who used to be cool before he cut his hair
  22. A song you would sing to stave off madness while sealed in a sensory deprivation tank
  23. A song you would like to beat the shit out of someone to
  24. Your favorite song by an artist you dislike not for their music, but for their profound moral failings
  25. A song you would like to have the shit beaten out of you to
  26. A song you would play to clear a house infested with spiders
  27. A song that somehow sounds orange to you
  28. Your favorite song from a band you once pretended to like in an attempt to get laid
  29. A song you hated in your youth but which you have now come to like, and which now serves as a painful reminder of how adulthood has robbed you of everything that once made you vital and interesting
  30. A song you would like to freeze to death to