“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…” my high school English teacher intoned at the end of the school day, but we hardly heard him, already halfway out of our seats at the sound that set us free. In one motion, we stuffed our Donne into our backpacks and leapt from the islands of our desks, swinging our packs onto one shoulder. Before the bell stopped ringing we were a moving landmass that spilled into the hallway and the bright afternoon.
For me and many of my classmates in the late 1990s, though, the bell was not a release from our burdens but a reminder to double-down for what lay ahead. My afternoons were overstuffed. Should I blow off my student council meeting to get to jazz band, which I hadn’t attended in two weeks? Could I then duck out early to run mile repeats with the track team? In a seminal essay in The Atlantic published in 2001, the year I graduated from high school, David Brooks famously called us “Organization Kids”: We were neurotic, perpetually in motion, and preoccupied with doing as much as humanly possible.11xDavid Brooks, “The Organization Kid,” The Atlantic, April 2001, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/04/the-organization-kid/302164/. The frenzy seemed worth it, because we believed that if we were bright and hard working, and our resumés contained just the right kinds of activities and accolades, the world would be ours.
To effect this, we wrenched the spectrum of art and sport and study into symbols that we could use to market our personal brands. The Organization Kids were walking contradictions. We sought those experiences that gave the appearance of devotion to some greater good, but our feverish attempt to claim them as our own ensured that we could attend to nothing beyond ourselves. Donne claimed that “no man is an island”; we were out to prove him wrong.
The most ambitious of my generation, now nearing forty, have risen to powerful positions in New York, Washington, and Silicon Valley. They have sold the world their frenzy in countless forms, most notably social media and streaming music. Now we too can strain against the limits of time and space as we advertise our most likeable moments and summon our favorite songs out of the cloud. The way we all live now, swiping and clicking our way to some better version of ourselves, is a frictionless sequel to how my peers and I passed our teenage years.
But what kinds of selves are we chasing? To begin to answer this, we must consider how the Organization Kids have molded our attention. Following the Christian contemplative tradition, Simone Weil likened attention to prayer, and when properly offered, attention should wed us to the natural contours of things—the way they really are, not as we wish them to be. To pay attention is to be drawn out of the desires of the self into a deeper connection with the world, and, ultimately, into a peace that, in Paul’s words, “passeth all understanding.” Yet my generation, as I can attest, in considering natural limits as obstacles to desire, started from the opposite premise. Whatever we were clamoring for, it certainly was not peace.
In high school, I mostly remember being exhausted. At the end of each day, I faced a half-hour drive home, usually through rush-hour traffic, and after dinner would trudge up to my bedroom to begin homework. I would drop my bookbag on the floor and fall onto my bed, trying to summon the energy to study. Before I took my textbooks out of my bag, I’d lean over to the bedside table and twist the little black knob on the analog clock radio until the speaker on the back of the unit popped loudly and settled into its tinny volume. My family lived in Rhode Island, and, unless the weather was bad, I could pick up the strongest of the Boston radio signals. Most of the time I listened to the classic rock station, or the Red Sox game, if baseball was in season. But each night, precisely at eight o’clock, I spun the orange tuner down to the bottom of the dial and listened to Eric Jackson’s jazz show.
Jackson is a legend in Boston radio. His show on WGBH dates back to 1981, and his voice still graces their signal today. Jackson speaks with rich, unrushed syllables that seem to resonate directly from his chest, and to hear his voice between tracks at the end of a day is to hear a baritone sax playing in an unseen alley, its deep tones curling into the corners of the evening. He rarely operates with a playlist, preferring, like a true jazz artist, to be moved by the spirit, and improvises his set as the night unfolds. His knowledge of artists and styles is deep and eclectic, and a regular listener to the show becomes a kind of Dante to Jackson’s Virgil, the recipient of a full-fledged education in the genre.
For many years he started his show with his theme song, pianist Tommy Flanagan’s gorgeous rendition of Horace Silver’s ballad “Peace.” Over the course of my high school nights I fell in love with it, and nearly two decades later I still consider it my favorite jazz song. “Peace” is a masterfully stripped-down composition, with a form just ten bars long, and a simple melody laid over some of the most beautiful chord changes I have ever heard. Flanagan’s version, with an evocative introduction and meandering piano solo, does an even better job than Silver’s original of evoking the spirit of the title.
Something cosmic happened each night at eight o’clock, at least as I remember it. The station with one of the strongest FM signals in Boston, whose broadcasts flew over the rooftops of several states twenty-four hours a day, stopped its news-and-talk programming each evening to play the same simple, gorgeous song, handpicked for the occasion by an individual steeped in the tradition of jazz music. On a good night, Tommy Flanagan’s chords stretched south of Boston into Providence and out to Cape Cod and the islands, west into the Berkshires, north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and up the Maine coast. Many were listening, but for the millions who were not, I like to think of “Peace” as still there, the unheard music playing in the air around them. As I listened from my bedroom, I swear that in the slowly descending bass line of Silver’s song I could sense the lights of New England dimming as its residents settled into the night, and into themselves. “Peace” marked the hour as a cathedral bell might have in the Middle Ages, or muezzins still do in certain parts of the world. It seemed to consecrate the evening.
When the song finished, Jackson always paused before he greeted his audience and announced what he would be playing that night. The last notes of “Peace” bled into this silence, making the air in my bedroom seem heavier, as if the curtain had dropped on the day’s production, finally relieving me of my burden. I could stop pretending that I could do everything.
The Organization Kids had the good fortune to come of age on a seam of history, as the proliferation of the web in the early 2000s coincided with our entry into the working world. One of the earliest indicators of the direction in which we would take consumer culture occurred in 1999, when two nineteen-year-olds launched Napster, the online peer-to-peer music-sharing service. The event rocked the recording industry and transformed the way we listen to music. Overnight, entire music libraries became available for download, for free. Perhaps not surprisingly, legal issues throttled the brand’s original iteration and forced its shutdown just two years later, but the damage had been done. One of Napster’s founders, Sean Parker, went on to play an even more prominent role in our consumption of online media. In 2004, he joined forces with Mark Zuckerberg’s nascent project and became Facebook’s first president. Five years later, the ascendant billionaire invested millions in a Swedish music-streaming service called Spotify, which he hoped would complete the mission he had started with Napster. By all counts, it has succeeded.
Until Napster’s debut, the way the music lover discovered new songs and artists had been essentially unchanged for nearly a century. Audio technology had progressed from the phonograph record to the eight-track to the compact disc, but regardless of whether you played your music on a turntable or on cassette deck, discovering new music was not an activity pursued in isolation, as it largely is today. Instead, it bound you to a real community of aficionados and sages. And when you wanted to hear something you didn’t own, you turned on the radio.
Voices on the dial—which may have been anyone from kids at the community college to Eric Jackson to nationally syndicated hosts like Casey Kasem—were broadcast not in encrypted bits through a wire but in a signal that carried through the air itself, and, like an actual human voice, grew fainter the farther you were from the source. To learn about new artists, you turned to magazines like Rolling Stone, whose album reviews you tucked inside your textbook to read during English class. Or maybe you spent time with your perpetually stoned friend who ate cereal three meals a day and whose walls were lined with roach clips and Grateful Dead bootlegs, and who would not stop talking about how his biggest regret was lending out his copy of the Cornell University show from ’77, because, dude, he’d give almost anything to hear that version of “Scarlet Begonias” again.
The music store was like a chapel. Sometimes you went there on a mission to find something specific. My piano teacher would write the name of a Bill Evans album on a scrap of paper, and I would make a beeline to Borders, clutching the torn slip in front of me like a lantern as I wandered the aisles. Would it be in the jazz section, or had a stock boy ignorantly filed it under easy listening? Other times you went there just to browse the racks, with no real goal in mind other than finding something interesting, just flipping, flipping, flipping through LPs. Vinyl records in their cardboard sleeves made a soft thwap, thwap, thwap as you flipped, sending a rush of air into your open eyes; CD jewel cases clicked like keys on a typewriter and were light enough that you only needed one or two fingers to flick them. If you saw a familiar name or song, it was not uncommon to buy an album you had never heard before, dropping $14.99 on the hope that it would be good.
The process necessarily drew you out of your own comfort zone into a wilderness of dimly lit stores and attics of questionable repute. The true searcher embraced the role of an acolyte and looked to white-bearded masters who would point the way. Your personal musical preferences were but jumping-off points on this journey. Guided rightly, a teenage fascination with AC/DC might lead to the Rolling Stones and Blind Willie McTell; a Phish lover might wake up one day to find himself deep in Bitches Brew or even Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. As with all quests, the goal was not contentment but fulfillment, not pleasure but transcendence.
People might still spend rainy afternoons in public libraries chasing down that British-released Van Morrison live album that their uncle recommended but which, alas, has not been uploaded to YouTube. But for the most part, the musical quest died somewhere between the release of Napster and the rise of Spotify. Who has time to venture out in search of anything anymore? The world’s music library is at our fingertips, and we can listen to the contents of a thousand record stores in our living rooms or on the way to work. Simply making songs available does little to help us discover new music, however. To capitalize on that need, the Organization Kids developed apps to do the dirty work of recommending music for us. As we scroll through Spotify playlists and select songs for the right mood, their algorithms silently compute our clicks so that in the future we will be fed only those selections we are most likely to enjoy. Although the musical searcher once assumed his own ignorance, in the eyes of the Organization Kids he is already wise—after all, the customer is always right.
As with so many of the changes the Internet has wrought in our lives, we’re still sorting through the implications of all this. The first is obvious and positive: The barriers to listening have been obliterated. We can listen to whatever we want, whenever we want. Your perpetually stoned friend has been delivered from his purgatory and now streams the Cornell “Scarlet Begonias” on his Bluetooth speaker whenever the mood is right. Spotify and YouTube have transformed the nature of music education. Instead of handing their students slips of paper, teachers send them e-mails with links to several different recordings of whatever song they’re working on. If they want to listen to a new artist, the only searching they have to do is with their index finger, and it can provide far more fruitful results than my treks to the music store, from which I often returned with empty hands. The cloud gives us the libraries of the world. But what does it take away?
To function, digital music must reduce three dimensions to two. Everything becomes information. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme becomes a bit of sound we conjure out of the ether and send back with a touch. Two-dimensional art becomes something for us to consume, rather than be consumed by. It has a difficult time making its mark on us. I realized this one day when I was half-mindedly searching for something to listen to. I found a solo acoustic show Jerry Garcia had played on April 10, 1982, at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey; after a quick Google search, I discovered that in his long career this was the only solo show he ever played. The entire thing was on YouTube—I was thrilled! I was startled, then, when the link to the show appeared in purple text on my screen. I must have opened it once in the past, but I didn’t remember listening to it before. When I clicked on the link, the show started playing in the middle, forty-five minutes into the set. I had not only clicked on this link before; I had already listened to a good portion of it. I started the recording from the beginning, hoping the music would sound familiar, but it did not.
Why didn’t I remember it? Back in the analog era, if I had gotten hold of a recording of a rare show from one of my favorite artists, I would have raced to my room, popped the bootleg tape into my stereo, and holed up for days listening to the grainy audio. I worry that we have forfeited something precious in trading analog music for access—that we have exchanged our desire for its objects.
The CDs I bought in my early high school days, when I was first discovering the wide world of music, are as clear in my mind as they ever were. But even CDs still contain digital music. Although the CD does a pretty good job of convincing you otherwise, its edges of sound have been squared off, chopped into bits so that a laser can scan it. The music we store on our laptops and stream from the cloud are highly compressed, and sound noticeably worse, their edges chopped entirely off. For this reason, vinyl records still have a market in the age of the smartphone app. I recently inherited a small collection of jazz records, mostly recordings from the ’30s and ’40s reissued on LPs from the ’60s and ’70s, and have been playing them on an old turntable through a set of bulky wood-grain speakers. Convenient the setup is not, but the sound—rich, warm, and complete—blows away what I’ve grown accustomed to downloading from the stream.
I play these old records—Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington—when I want to pay attention to what I’m hearing, not when I need background noise. It involves a series of ritualized gestures. I sweep my sleeve over the big black disc to clear it of dust and start the turntable. The tone arm bows onto the edge of the vinyl, and the speakers crackle and come to life. If I bow too, and place my ear next to the needle, I can hear the hi-hat cymbal loud and clear coming from the spinning plate, even if the speakers are turned off. When I have the luxury of giving it my attention, the turntable cabinet becomes an altar.
If we measured the value of music by its connection to three-dimensionality, in the end, live music would be the only kind worth our attention. The purest sound would be mediated neither by the representation of recording nor the distortion of amplification. It would emanate from a vibration caused by the musician herself: a quivering vocal cord; a struck cymbal; a pair of buzzing lips pushing hot breath through the brass bell of a trumpet. Such a proposition of purity seems impractical in our age, and it is, with a few notable exceptions.
Most noteworthy among them are opera houses. Most, like New York’s Metropolitan, maintain fidelity to opera’s history by forgoing amplification. Its singers must succeed in flinging their voices above the orchestra to the entire theater. Audience members in seats so far away that they need binoculars to see the stage can still hear the music perfectly—in fact, some opera buffs argue that the nosebleed seats yield the best acoustic experience. I’m inclined to believe them; I’ve sat in the “Family Circle” at the Met before, and the vocalists came in just over the top of the orchestra, melody and harmony in perfect balance. It’s astounding. Only a handful of singers in the world possess the physical capacity and the training to project their voices in such a fashion, and they can do so at top form only for a short period of their lives. And this can only happen in an auditorium built on several millennia of human ingenuity for one purpose: to serve as a temple to human sound. The result, a marvel of effort and genius, makes the electronic musical effects to which our age is so accustomed seem like gimmicks in comparison.
Even in the days when recorded music meant warbly phonographs and tinny Victrolas, some still regarded the technology as the devil’s work. The mother of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, herself an accomplished classical pianist, forbade her children to listen to recordings. If they wanted to hear a song, she said, they had to play it themselves. That approach certainly worked for Brubeck, who, if jazz lore is to be believed, developed such a sharp ear that he graduated from music college despite being unable to read a lick of sheet music. One not need be as strict a purist as Brubeck’s mother to recognize the wisdom of her insight, echoed by the media critic Marshall McLuhan, who insisted that “the medium is the message.” In the end, form matters more than content. Hermeneutic is heir to habit, and the way that we listen to music gives rise to how we understand our relation to it, and to beauty itself.
What is the hermeneutic of the cloud? For the information in the cloud to be everywhere at once, it must also be nowhere. It must have no substance—no discs or drives or cards to weigh it down on its flight into and out of the ether. It must be pure data, indistinguishable in its digital properties (all those ones and zeros) from anything else that can appear on a screen—the words I am typing now, the logo on Google’s homepage, the notification that just popped up on your smartphone. It’s tough for this kind of simulacrum to have any real purchase on your memory, or, should I say, on yourself. As I look at the purple links of music on my YouTube feed, most half-played, abandoned, and now forgotten, I feel like some unwitting Brave New Amnesiac, trained to forget his own experiences so that he will repeat them over and over again.
If you tune to WGBH on a weeknight now, you won’t hear Eric Jackson’s voice. In 2012, the station programmers made the decision to move Jackson to the weekends. Before they did this, they started messing with his songs. No ballads for the first hour, they insisted. “Peace,” his eight-o’clock theme, had to go. New England stopped hearing Tommy Flanagan at that hour every night, and I imagine the collective blood pressure of the region ticked up a few points out of some subterranean sympathy. During the week, that hectic period when we all seem in most need of peace, the strongest FM signal in Boston now broadcasts no music at all. The excision of Silver’s song serves as a kind of ready-made synecdoche for the disappearance of art from the public square, and the concomitant ebb of another, bigger peace from our lives.
The minutiae of our inner lives—our desires, insecurities, daily moments of anxiety—once offered the human race husks of transcendence. They led one to admire great art, or perhaps even inspired one to create it, or, as in the case of Augustine and his restless heart, directed one toward a spiritual conversion. Yet to the Organization Kids, the ups and downs of our quotidian experience were so many untapped veins of ore. Things really haven’t changed for my generation in the years since we were buzzing around our high school hallways. My peers still look for ways to profit from the artistic, athletic, and cultural fabric of their communities—the only difference is that now they are doing it from the most powerful cultural perches in the world, via the most effective delivery device in human history, the smartphone.
In the early 2000s, as the web began its transformation of everything cultural, Andrew Sullivan was at the vanguard of the chattering class, blogging seemingly round-the-clock at The Daily Dish. At the time, he joked that “if the Internet killed you…. I would be the first to find out.” The joke wasn’t funny for long. Being constantly connected became too much. His health deteriorated, his friendships waned, and by 2015 he had had enough. Sullivan gave up blogging (at least until last year), took up meditation, and rediscovered silence. In a 2016 article for New York magazine, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan explained his journey, and offered a counterpoint—dissonant though it may have been—to the tune hummed by Silicon Valley. In the article, he argued that if we are ever to escape the most deleterious personal and societal effects of our addiction to the cloud, we need some cultural fixture to draw us out of our own myopia, something like meditation or Mass that leads us into a disciplined cultivation of the sacred, “a space that lets your life breathe,” where we find “a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.”22xAndrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Intelligencer (blog), New York, September 18, 2016, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-my-distraction-sickness-and-yours.html. For various reasons, Sullivan’s journey took him back to blogging this past July, when he announced the startup of a new blog, The Weekly Dish. See “See You Next Friday: A Farewell Letter,” Intelligencer (blog), New York, July 17, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/andrew-sullivan-see-you-next-friday.html. What we need, in other words, is art. By its very nature, art draws us out of ourselves, as “Peace” called to me from a Boston radio tower two decades ago, reminding me that I was not an island, but part of a continent. Yet in the kingdom of the Organization Kids, we must remain islands, if the kingdom is to turn a profit. And what profit comes of art? What of peace?