Learning to Be Happy Alone

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Here’s a simple test you can try at home: Turn off your cellphone for an hour. Just one hour. Then, observe how many times you think about checking your phone, your texts, your Facebook page, your Tumblr page, your RSS reader, your WordPress blog, and so on. When I do it, when I shut off my media via my smartphone, I think about my phone a lot. It feels like I’m missing something. I translate this impulse (in me) as: Can you see me? When my phone is off, I’m alone. Very alone.

Although iTunes isn’t directly “media” or a social networking tool (although the Store has links to Facebook), it fills a kind of contact point to the interconnected world. iTunes has my wants in its “wish” lists, it knows my weaknesses in its “purchased” lists, it wants to help me remember my friends with “gifts.” I can, if I want to, share with anyone virtually everything I do in iTunes.

Cutting iTunes out of my life (as was my pledge earlier this year, that I would abstain from purchasing any music from iTunes for a full year), has been a little like turning off my phone. Obviously, it’s forced me to face my addiction to Apple’s version of digital music. Surprisingly (and more importantly), it’s also forced me to face my inner aloneness. The illusion of visibility online, as I’ve observed it in my life, through websites and social-media tools, translates into a kind of two-way channel of validation for the things I like to believe about myself, including that I know what’s cool in music.

Easy validation was there. Seeing the music I like headlining iTunes (or appearing in a Spotify feed piped through Facebook, or linked in Twitter), at a subtle level validates that I’m listening to the “right” music. That what I’m doing with music is cool, too, because practically anyone can see what I’m doing, and, in turn, I can see what everyone else is doing. It’s an approval mechanism that works both ways. You approve of what I think is cool in music. I see you like what I like, so I get a chance to approve (or not) of what you’re into.

It seems obvious, and this is all stuff I knew already, but knowing in an off-hand way differs from knowing. What’s reset many of my music assumptions came when I stopped looking at iTunes as my primary way of seeing what’s new in music, digitally speaking. What’s being “remastered” for iTunes. Which artists are “all in,” and which are still “holding out.” It obscured me from seeing iTunes for what it really is. iTunes isn’t new-music news. It’s what’s new in music marketing. It’s a sales channel to tell the (Apple) universe what to buy. It’s all marketing information, paid for and positioned by companies selling products. iTunes can’t tell me who I like. Or who I am in music. It can only suggest what I can (or should, in Apple’s opinion) buy, which in itself is the slimmest of views into the world of real music. By turning off iTunes, I’ve had to go back into myself to see what I think about music. By myself. iTunes and social media exist to sell us something. They’re fun, easy, ubiquitous. That’s the insidious nature of it all.

When I walk into any small indie record shop (like The Business in Anacortes), I find literarily thousands of bands, records, and songs I’ve never heard that are anxiously waiting for me to browse my way to them. It’s always been true, but without access to easy-to-buy music from anywhere now, I find going into record shops more compelling. You might hate what I like on vinyl, or you might love it. Neither of us will know. Because this year is about collecting music on vinyl (with occasional digital downloads that come with the vinyl, when record labels can make that happen). I’m discovering new bands and new music. I’m making decisions about what to buy based on me. And because my friends can’t watch me buying actual records in a record shop, I do that without them, too.

When I left iTunes behind I thought I was simply facing off on my need to have Apple’s latest releases digitally dropped (silently) into my iTunes library, unnoticed and uncounted. Leaving, I was rebelling at Apple’s assumption that they alone know what’s cool in music, rebelling at being forced to organize my music library in ways that help Apple, not me. When I listen to music now, on vinyl, I do that alone, too. No one can “follow me” or “friend me” or “subscribe to me” or “tweet me” or “like me” or “reblog me” or “contact me” about what I’m listening to. They can’t validate me, approve of me, or “unfriend” me.

And this aloneness is forcing me to discover who I am in music today. If I want to spin the vinyl of  “Go-Go Boots,” by the Drive-By Truckers, no one sees. If I want to play Sera Cahoone’s records over and over, especially “Deer Creek Canyon,” even the same side or single song over and over, the number of “plays” isn’t recorded and no one sees. If I want to hunt down used first pressings of classic records like Spoon’s “Kill the Moonlight,” Sleater-Kinney’s “The Woods,” or even a first pressing of Sigur Ros’s “Ágætis byrjun,” no one sees.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. I love technology. It’s just that I’m feeling the consequences of how easy it’s been to get unconsciously sucked into the web vortex. As I write this column, I’ve heard that Apple is preparing to launch its own cloud-based music service, much like Pandora and Spotify. A natural step, you’re thinking, given that they have so much digital content already, for sale, and presumably their good relations with all of the earth’s record labels means the labels want it, too. Apple does have a lot of music to sell. No doubt the Apple cloud player will have built-in ways to sell things. I recently discovered that Amazon’s cloud player now plays better (just a little buggy) with my iPad and iPhone, and with iTunes. But I’ve also discovered that Amazon’s long corporate memory remembers everything I’ve ever bought from them, not just digital downloads, every CD and LP as well, going back years. Years. It’s just a little creepy. A new iTunes cloud player will sit somewhere in the middle of this crowded new cloud pipeline.

When we’re young, when we realize we’re separate beings alone with our thoughts, fears, insecurities, facing our human destiny, we look for things to help us answer “Who am I?” I’ve come to believe that music is a great way to discover who we are, at any age. Social media seems like it’s a reasonable tool for exploring our inner unknown selves. There’s the snag.

We’re still alone in this life, in our bodies and in our minds. By turning off one media stream in my life (iTunes), I’m learning how to explore (and trust) this new overgrown, sprawling, tangled, difficult, new-music landscape. No maps, no trail guides, and no refunds. I’ve had to listen to songs and records by myself without anyone to cheer me on. I’ve had to live with my doubts about some of what I’ve chosen, living with my uncertainty about new artists.

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs, and it feels like a kind of mental rot. Social media promotes an aspirational state of mind, not reality. It’s a vehicle to tell the world how we want the world to see us, not how we really are or what we really feel, while it drives a numbing homogeneity by limiting what we see to those things our friends see or things paid for by corporations showing us the stuff they want us to see (and buy).

Stopping the iTunes feed this year has meant embracing my inner aloneness. And as a result, I have a vast new collection of pretty cool music (my opinion), and many more new band obsessions. Trouble is, you can’t see them. Neither can Apple. Without iTunes, my world is still filling up with music at a super fast pace that I can embrace and obsess over. I’m alone. But I’m learning how to be happy with what I find inside my own mind. Learning to be happy alone.