The Lost Art of Listening, Part 2: Miracles & Wonders

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[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 1: Ubiquity & Scarcity by Andrew Peterson.]

Friends, I believe I am falling victim to one of the classic blunders—the most famous of which is never get involved in a land war in Asia—but only slightly less known is this: never go against a Peterson when your job is on the line!

I kid. And yet…

Last week, Andrew Peterson made an argument for the recovery of the “lost art of listening” and scarcity in music. In it, he shared about his experience growing up with cassettes and CDs, poring over liner notes, and the process of learning to love an album’s deeper cuts. He argues that the ubiquity offered by Spotify and the digital age has made it easy to speed past these experiences and engage with more music on a surface level, rather than dive deep.

Today, I’m tasked with offering a rebuttal—an alternate view of our musical landscape and its implications on our capability to intentionally engage with art. But I’d first like to establish some common ground. I absolutely agree and affirm the need to sit, slow down, and pay attention to what we’re listening to with the same respect we offer films at the theater. After all, the artist spent months—perhaps years—crafting this collection of music for our enjoyment and enrichment. Can’t we offer them at least an hour’s attention?

Andrew covered this subject well, and I don’t want to spend too much time doubling down on it. What I’d like to do instead is push back against the idea that streaming-era ubiquity undercuts the process of truly living with an album. The choice between intentional listening and playing background music is not new to Generation Z or Millennials or Gen Xers. Before the algorithms of Spotify and Pandora came along to compete for our musical attention, there were mixtapes—collections of songs cherry picked so we could ignore the album cuts we didn’t like. Furthermore, radio programmers have been curating America’s musical taste and pushing singles for just about 100 years.

Deconstructing the album is not a novel idea. The choice has always been there: do we allow ourselves and others to control a piece of art and conform it to our needs, or do we allow an artist to speak to us in the way they intended?

Surprisingly, a look at recent Billboard charts suggests that America is actually taking a slowed-down approach to music. While social commentators like to highlight Gen Z’s shortening attention span, last year, 21-year-old Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” became the longest-running number single in history, holding the spot for 19 weeks. That’s nearly five months dominated by a single song. Additionally, it’s now commonplace for entire albums to appear on the Hot 100 chart at the same time, instead of just a single or two. In 2018, Drake claimed seven of the top ten spots when his album Scorpion dropped. This year, The Weeknd’s album After Hours also appeared on the chart in its entirety. What this all suggests is that people are listening. They’re listening to albums from cover to cover. They’re taking their time.

But I’m not here to talk about how ubiquity has served the world’s biggest pop stars. They were doing fine before the streaming era, and they’ll be doing fine in whatever era comes next (may the vinyl revolution come soon!). The true “miracles and wonders” of the streaming era begin with the opening of the gates to independent artists. Never in music’s history has it been as possible for an independent artist to gather an audience. 

Now, please don’t mishear me. It will never be easy for independent artists, but the tools available—from platforms like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Audiomack, and Spotify, to digital distributors like TuneCore and CD Baby, to recording software like GarageBand, Pro Tools, and FL Studio—are simply unprecedented. Music creation, distribution, and promotion is at every artist’s fingertips. It’s truly amazing. However, it also adds to music’s ubiquitous, saturated market, making it difficult for artists to vie for an audience’s attention.

We should never shy away from allowing our curiosity to wander to the world’s very edges in search of truth and hope, especially in times like right now when it’s easy to be cooped up with our own thoughts and emotions.

Chris Thiessen

This is the world I find myself in every day as a music writer, a world with enough music—old and new, popular and underground, traditional and experimental—to fill the Library of Alexandria hundreds of times over, all for $9.99 a month. Yes, it’s easy to devalue music in this current landscape. Yes, it’s easy to get lost in the unnavigable waves of sound pouring out of speakers incessantly. However, music’s ubiquity is not our enemy. If we as music listeners are not finding art to engage with on the level Andrew shared about with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites, we can’t blame Spotify. We can’t blame this new fad or that. We can only blame ourselves.

Instead, we should be harnessing this immense wealth of art to: 1) Explore music’s vastness and discover what truly speaks to us, 2) Give attention to a diverse collection of artists whose stories are different from ours and drive us deeper toward truth, and 3) Discover music’s deep interconnectedness and weave together a beautiful picture of the world through art. 

Let me share a bit about my relationship with music to demonstrate what I mean. I wasn’t much of an “album listener” until about five years ago. I simply didn’t have the tools to critically analyze art and find deeper meaning in its melodies until college. Before then, I listened to albums on occasion (Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown will forever be an important part of my story), but mostly I cherry picked songs to fit my mood and my needs. Most of the time, that meant songs that sounded impressive on my guitar with a lot of distortion (read: Stryper). 

In 2016, I decided I needed to broaden my horizons and discover more music if I were to truly understand it as an art form and, through it, understand the world I live in. A passage from C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy had been gnawing at me: “It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts needed to be [based] on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion…‘Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?’” You see, I had opinions about music, but what they were based on, I couldn’t say. And this is where my undying gratitude for music’s ubiquity enters.

In 2017, I set a goal to listen to 500 unique albums in a year—a goal I thought was well-intended, but one I wouldn’t actually reach. I wanted to know the depth and vastness of music, instead of sequester myself off in the niche of Christian hard rock and metal. That year, I listened to 732 unique albums (yes, I’m a nerd and have the list). I listened to new releases which changed my life from Kendrick Lamar’s multi-layered masterpiece DAMN. to Mount Eerie’s devastating exploration of death on A Crow Looked At Me. I dove deep into older artists who have become essential to my musical taste and spiritual formation like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Bob Dylan. 

That year, to be honest, I didn’t listen to a lot of records on repeat. I was simply trying to listen to as much variety as I could (still with intentionality). Yet, it’s amazing that when I look back on the list, I can remember exactly where I was for so many listens. I remember walking in an East Nashville park soundtracked by Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy or doing dishes in our tiny on-campus apartment to 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. I remember blasting Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run with Annaleigh on our way to see my musical hero in concert. I’m so thankful for these memories, which I carry with me even as I plow forward in daily music discovery.

In the three years since, I’ve tried to slow down my approach somewhat. A balance must be struck between constantly discovering and sitting with a piece over time. I still listen to plenty of albums (217 so far this year), but I’m learning to give them enough time to sit, to glean from them what the artist is communicating and what I can learn from it, to earn “the right to have an opinion” by living with the music. Still, the accessibility of diverse music has been instrumental in my growth. The amount of life lessons and perspectives I’ve experienced as a result of easier access simply couldn’t be matched by any other era of music.

For example, through rapper Saba’s Care For Me, I was thrust into the bleak outlook of a young African-American man growing up in Chicago. Through Nigerian-British funk group Ibibio Sound Machine’s Doko Mien, I heard stories in a unique language about coming to the water for rest from labor and stress. Through Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You, I was prepared to practice the compassion and selflessness of being a parent. I wasn’t listening to any of these artists five years ago. I can’t imagine my life without them now. 

The world of music is infinite. It’s okay to be overwhelmed and not know where to start. As a music writer, I still feel that way all the time. But we should never shy away from allowing our curiosity to wander to the world’s very edges in search of truth and hope, especially in times like right now when it’s easy to be cooped up with our own thoughts and emotions. 

To that end, I want to provide some resources which will help you recapture the lost art of listening and make sense of this immense world of art.

  1. Liner notes & Lyrics: Andrew mentioned his grief over the loss of liner notes, and I feel his pain. However, there are wonderful digital resources to fill this void, at least in part. Genius is a hub with lyrics to basically every song in existence. What makes it even better though is it often offers the song’s credits as well as commentary from the Genius community (Note: this is open source like Wikipedia, but oftentimes, the artists themselves chime in with their own commentaries). Additional resources for credits and album information include Discogs, WhoSampled, and AllMusic.
  2. Critical Publications: It should be noted that the ratings and opinions of music critics are exactly that: opinions. They should never dictate your own opinion about music, but there are some publications devoted to true storytelling and editorial writing which I find insightful and help me consider music from different points of view. Among my favorites are Pitchfork, DJBooth, Bandcamp Daily, and of course, our own reviews at The Rabbit Room. But there are so many others that might fit your tastes!
  3. Aggregate sites: If you’re looking for new music releases, my favorite resource is Album of the Year, which provides new release lists as well as an aggregation of critical writing on the albums. If you’re looking for past releases, Wikipedia is a wealth of information and has music pages for each year. Though not always accurate or complete, it’s pretty dang helpful. 

Of course, this doesn’t even include the insane amount of interviews, concert videos, documentaries, video essays, and so much more you can find on YouTube and elsewhere. The resources are endless, and the potential for deeper connection with music today is unparalleled. 

So, of course, play Paul Simon’s Graceland for the millionth time, and you’re sure to still glean new revelations in these days of miracles and wonders. But please don’t stop there; the world is too big! Let that record lead you to Shaka Zulu by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose South African isicathamiya was highlighted on Graceland. Then let that lead you north to Nigerian activist Fela Kuti whose 1977 album Fear Not For Man was released amidst 200 different arrests by a corrupt government. Then listen to Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides, which sampled Kuti 20 years later to highlight the ongoing reality of oppression. Then listen to Rich Mullins’ A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band to realize that the battle of hope and fear connects entirely different styles of music. Then listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream to hear how the midwest landscape has served as muse for generations of American songwriters. Then listen to…

I could go on, but I’ll let you continue that listening journey yourself.

Click here to read Part 3: Precious Impermanence by Jennifer Trafton.


5 Comments

  1. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Thanks Chris! I appreciate this perspective a lot… it makes me feel better about myself. 😉

    I kind of live between the generations… I remember the excitement of saving up to buy new music, but in my later teens and early 20s, the digital landscape radically reshaped my listening experience and expanded my horizons. Those years were a strange mix of buying any used CDs that looked interesting, reading magazines and review websites, buying super cheap downloads on iTunes and Amazon mp3, and tracking down music by my favorite bands’ favorite bands. These days, I’m a paid spotify user that buys more vinyl than CDs. We’ve been known to find new favorites on Spotify and listen on repeat (Skye’s new record, Mission House, and J Lind to name a few RR folks!) and I’ve had fun rediscovering old favorites. (For some reason classic Sufjan Stevens keeps showing up in my pandemic soundtrack.) I feel like I don’t do as much wild exploration and discovery as I used to, but maybe it’s time to get adventurous again.

  2. Lila Diller

    Thank you for this, Chris! I agree, for the most part, especially about compilation tapes and radio curators. What’s ironic is that I began reading this immediately after I started the Rabbit Room’s weekly cherry-picked playlist on Spotify (the previous link in the email). 😀

  3. Dana Wright

    I have enjoyed the two articles. I have at 69 divided music offen into three categories if it fits: music that I enjoy the melody, music that enjoy the voice or musician or group, music that I enjoy the lyrics and the most rare for me is music where I enjoy the melody, the lyrics and musician(s.) sometimes I have found that it is a matter of listening to a song or album at different times before it “speaks”to me.
    several songs in the “resurrection letters” have fallen into that category.

  4. Chris Thiessen

    @chris-thiessen

    Thanks for reading, Lila! I totally see the irony there, but playlists “can” have their benefits too, especially when they help to connect themes of songs together, like what we aim to do with our Advent or Easter playlists. It’s another wonderful tool, but I certainly listen to albums much more than playlists!

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