How would we listen to The Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had these albums been released today? Much like how video was believed to have killed the radio star when the MTV era began in 1980s, the age of music streaming is said to have killed off the very idea of the album that takes the listener on a thematic, sonic or narrative journey. If this sounds too esoteric an issue to be bothered about, consider a recent Twitter exchange on the subject of the shuffle feature and what it says about our attention-deficient times.
British singer-songwriter Adele, who recently released her fourth studio album 30, responded to news about Spotify removing the shuffle button as the default option on albums, by thanking the music streaming giant for “listening”. She tweeted: “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason. Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.” Whether or not Spotify made this move at Adele’s explicit request — the company responded to her tweet with, “only for you” — is besides the point. What this exchange highlights is that, despite having every kind of music, from all over the world, at our literal fingertips, we’ve forgotten how to really listen to — and engage with — music. What we do instead is skip from song to song, seeking the dopamine hit that comes with every fresh track. The fact that Spotify counts 30 seconds of playtime of every song as a single stream is itself a damning indicator of our flighty listening habits.
Requiems for the music album — one of the 20th century’s greatest art concepts —had begun to be written back in the early aughts when the iPod, with a shuffle feature that prioritised singles over albums, upended the industry. With Adele’s pushback and Spotify’s acquiescence, here’s hoping that those requiems would not need to be played anytime soon.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2021 under the title ‘Just hit play’.