To celebrate the recent UK release of Gina Arnold’s 33 1/3 on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, we bring you the first installment of Exiled in Guyville Week. You can read a fantastic review of Gina’s book in the New York Times here.
Despite the success of Jack White’s recent vinyl only release, the Guardian just announced the death of the album. According to George Ergatoudis, head of music at BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra, this month. “With very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction.”
The word “extinction” invariably invokes thoughts of the survival of the fittest, and one must give pause at the thought of what the fittest, in this case, has been until now.
The article goes on to say that the LP (long player) format is going down the tubes, with single tracks becoming the sales standard, and I for one believe it: yesterday there was even a clue in the New York Times crossword that read, “rapper with 3x platinum single “Hold On We’re Going Home.” If nothing else, this is the first sign that the New York Times’ obsession with the Steely Dan album Aja and producer Brian Eno is waning: soon, knowledge of actual album titles and their producers will be on the same level as knowing the names of all the books of the Old Testament (in order, stuff about homerun king Mel Ott, and other crazy crossword puzzle lore.
More proof (if needed): my daughter is a huge music consumer, but she has exactly 3 CDS in her collection, all entitled “X.”
Joking aside, the change from album to single is really quite profound topic: the very least that can be said about is that it changes the valence of this book series. 33 1/3rd books are about listening to albums, not songs, an activity which is now apparently an historical practice. I am sure all the authors of the series feel conflicted about this new turn of events, but I feel it is especially worth commenting on in regards to the album I wrote about for my selection in the series, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, because unlike other records, it billed itself as a reflexive exercise in listening to a different LP, the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street.
Exile In Guyville was planned as a response album to Main Street, but most of the jest in that gesture was loaded into the physical attributes of the album, the gatefold, the grainy black and white pictures, the track order, the number of songs per side, etc. How can that possibly translate to a listener today, who will probably be hearing it on earbuds?
Well, it cannot. Luckily, Liz Phair’s music holds up without the joke embedded in the title and the theme, without knowing about the little jabs at local musicians and Mick Jagger, without hearing the song in sequence. That said, it is better if you listen to it all the way through, rather than song by song, as if each number was a potential hit. It’s better, because taken as a whole, it encompasses a sustained mood. Heard together, the songs add up to something, providing a commentary on an era, a world, and singer’s particular place in it.
That , it seems to me, is the whole purpose of an “LP,” whether it is on vinyl or CD or MP3. That said, the extinction of the LP format is not quite on par with the extinction of an actual wild animal. Music is always going to be of value to humans: all this really means is that a major change is coming – a change to the way that music is consumed, circulated, thought about, and valued.
It won’t change the place it holds in our hearts.