The BBC has long (like since 1942 long) run a program called “Desert Island Discs” (with numerous other broadcasters running similar programs). The basic setup of the Beeb’s version is you bring in some person of interest (a celebrity or author or politician or whatever) and ask them what they’d take with them if they were going to be stranded indefinitely on a desert island. They get the King James Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare for free (it is the BBC, after all), and then have to choose eight recordings to take with you (as well as an additional book and a luxury). They are interviewed about their choices, with their musical choices interspersed amongst the chat.
While it’s often interesting, it’s often less so (not all these people are that interesting underneath their celebrity), and I am by no means a regular listener. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea though, as part of my love of Top 10 lists and the like. Every now and again I think about what I’d say if someone asked me, and I’ve come to realize that modern technology has fundamentally broken the metaphor. The whole thing was premised on big, heavy objects which forced choices in the face of limited resources. (Check out, for example, the excellent program on John Lennon’s jukebox, where he could only carry a few dozen singles with him on tour.)
When my sister was first heading to the Galapagos 1.5 years ago, my dad and I bought her a small, inexpensive, solid state (for low power consumption) MP3 player. She was going to be on the islands for several months, including several weeks on Española, an uninhabited island mostly covered in lava boulders (with the smattering of marine iguanas, horseshoe crabs, and Booby poo to break the monotony). This was about as close to a desert island experience as most of us will ever have, but we were able to spend less than $100 to give her the ability to take vastly more than eight recordings. And that was 1.5 years ago. The same amount of money today would buy her far more capacity, and there’s every reason to believe the trend will continue into the significant future.
WeatherGirl, Sub-Evil Boy, and I have a second generation 10Gb iPod we bought several years ago, which is truly wonderful on long car trips. (The 14 hour drive down to my folks in Arkansas is probably another modern equivalent of a desert island given the state of American radio and the diversity of our tastes.) We each choose about 2.5-3 Gb of music, load it up, and hit random. It works really well, especially if we all avoid overly long pieces and I don’t put in too many really weird bits.
3 Gb is an enormous amount of music compared to the eight recordings from Desert Island Discs, and you might think we wouldn’t have to choose at all. The other two don’t (much), but I definitely do. We (meaning mostly me) have over 1K CDs, and I have well over 10Gb of music on the Mac in my office, so choose I must. At first I agonized over it, but I’ve learned to avoid that by simply have the computer choose 2.5 Gb of random music from a list of stuff I know I like (mostly things I’ve rated as 4 or 5 stars). Sure, I’m not guaranteed to have “Lord, I just can’t keep from crying” by Blind Willie Johnson, but I might get to stumble something obscure and strange from David Lee Myers’ Arcane device: Engine of myth (an album composed entirely by sampled and arranged electronic feedback sounds). I get what I get, and it’s almost all really good, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Starting last year I started doing something similar in my First Year Seminar (FYS) course on American Roots Music. Instead of sweating over the careful construction of weekly listening lists (which I was never entirely happy with because I always had to leave something “crucial” out), I now let iTunes pick 30 minutes of random music from the big pile. I sometimes do a little editing (we’ve already heard that artist before, or that’s really too long to justify inclusion), but mostly I leave it alone. At first I was pretty nervous about stepping back that much, but it in fact worked out really well. We got to listen to and discuss a lot of cool music of many different types. This also allowed the combination of my general taste and sense of what’s important (which determines the pool the music’s being drawn from) and the students’ tastes (and sense of surprise or confusion) drive the discussion in interesting ways.
(I’ve also thought of taking this approach with a show on KUMM, but it would have to be different from our family show and I doubt I have time for two shows at the moment.)
So it seems that the old metaphor of Desert Island Discs is arguably seriously broken, and that replacing it with “What would you put on your huge MP3 player?” just isn’t going to work as a replacement metaphor, at least for a radio show. (MusicMobs, however, does suggest an interesting on-line way to deal with the vast amount of music in people’s collections.) Memes like “Ten random songs on Friday” are arguably closer, but the sample is so small that really unrepresentative things can happen, so many people feel the need to manipulate the list (or at least apologize for it).
Weirdly, the metaphor also wouldn’t have made any sense 100 years ago when most people had never heard recorded music, but carried it around in their heads and made it on their front porches. “What do you mean I can only take 5 songs? I know dozens! Do I have to forget the rest? Am I not allowed to write any while I’m there?”
Everything old is new again? Probably not, as we have access to a vastly larger and broader spectrum of music now than at any other time in human history. But it’s not all completely new, is it?