12,700 songs, 20 years, one iPod

I, like any other casual Luddite, am comfortable adapting to technological trends and tools at a cautiously deliberate speed. It’s shaped the ways I’ve consumed music across roughly two decades of lovingly curating the soundtrack to my life.

When everyone else was diving into the murky waters of Napster and all its music-sharing brethren, I alternately scavenged friends’ and the campus radio station’s CD libraries, copying the borrowed prizes I unearthed to a limping parade of overtaxed hand-me-down laptops. Everyone else brandished their first iPods while I diligently cultivated a CD collection I’m still proud of. Their listening habits transitioned to algorithm-driven streaming services as I loudly grumbled about wanting a physical separation between my phone and my music-listening device while silently willing my iPod Classic to keep chugging along in my quest to make its 160-gig capacity less of a feature and more of a personal challenge. While Spotify emerged victorious for everyone else, I doubled down on urging my Last.fm scrobbles onward to the 200K milestone.

By the fall of 2019, I was finally at the point where Spotify has infiltrated my daily life. My 2006 Santa Fe is still limited to six CDs; my iPod is still my go-to when wifi isn’t an option because I don’t think I’ll ever stop wanting to keep my phone and music-player exclusive from each other. But I’ve acquiesced to wireless speakers and streaming music through the laptop I’ve bonded with while working from my living room during the quarantine’s work-from-home orders. The 12,700 songs currently on my iPod—which I used to play daily through a combination of mounted devices, an ancient desktop, and almost as aged headphones from a four-generations-ago smartphone—seem to reflect the inevitable plateau indicating a change in how I listen to music, much like how my CD collection stopped growing in fits and spurts somewhere around 2007, a time-capsule monument to how deeply my taste in music was intertwined with my college identity. (This epochal iPod-to-Spotify shift was also nudged along a couple-three years ago by an alert that my desktop version of iTunes will no longer be supported or updated by the company, thus putting an unceremonious end to the 2 a.m. digital-music-buying therapy that punctuated years of coping with some jobs I hated—though it does have me buying CDs more frequently than in the decade prior.)

Back in 2011, I was five years into post-college reality and wanted to reacquaint myself with the full scope of what lived on my iPod. My music collection was on its third wave of evolution: From those angsty high school years molded by achingly earnest late-‘90s/early-aughts emo rose a snobbishly revered indier-than-thou intimacy born of college’s freedom enabling my love of interacting with my favorite bands in tiny, improbably makeshift venues that rarely licked at the shores of their 50-person max occupancies; from there, I mellowed into simply loving music, taking comfort in my favorites who were still producing the occasional album or fracturing into new outfits entirely, trusting my friends and chance encounters with guilty pleasures to guide me toward broadening my musical horizons and, most notably, embracing the truest display of marital devotion by allowing my iTunes library to finally merge with my husband’s vastly different one (and thanks be to Cthulhu for our shared classic-rock affinity). I was curious what that wary evolution sounded like, how long it would take to revisit three different stages of my musical taste, and if there was anything I had outgrown—or appreciated anew—along the way.

I had the idea to break my habit of cycling through the same handful of go-to favorites by imposing some kind of order on how I’d listen to everything on my iPod. Alphabetical seemed like the most democratic, but doing so by either artist or album sounded like risking over-saturation. I settled on devouring my iPod song by song until I’d listened to all 8,300+ of them from Cartel’s “A” to Jets to Brazil’s “*******”. It took 42 days to listen to what iTunes tabulated as 23.1 days of music. (If you’re really curious, I wrote about it here, though more from a last.fm-specific angle.)

In the end, it became more about not having to put much thought into what I casually listened to as background noise and simply seeing how long it took to work through my entire library. In the almost 10 years since I took an alphabetical stroll through the shifting landscape of the music I’ve loved, I always felt like I owed it more than just being an excuse to make a list while diversifying my last.fm radio.

I’ve tried it again maybe two or three times since, I think once getting as far as the mid-B’s. Maybe two or three years ago, I jotted down some notes about the thoughts and feelings a certain song evoked, whether they were dusty memories or how eerily relevant a song from my teenage years still was more than a decade later, but never did anything with those half-formed observations.

Now that my iPod seems to have established a sort of natural equilibrium, I find myself wanting to try this again. And I want to do right by the songs that have become places, people, and life preservers of all kinds over the years. Of all the writing I’ve done in the past 14 years of my word-slinging career, I’ve never looked to the music I love for inspiration.

In the time it took to write all this among answering work emails and hacking away at the transcriptions that will become this week’s articles, the first 38 alphabetically organized songs in Slothrop the iPod have accompanied my ping-ponging between the desktop that’s too slow for anything but music or word-processing (but never both at once, lest you anger the overworked and under-appreciated hamsters inside) and the laptop that makes working from home possible. Some of those songs immediately rocked me back to a slideshow of memories that seem so vividly within reach: an overcast seaside Bamboozle Fest, a friend’s packed car as we drove into some infinite summer-vacation night, a montage of my husband’s good-natured ribbings about how much he hates my beloved Decemberists, scenes from the college radio station where so many so-far-lifelong friendships were solidified, an adult obsession that very nearly got out of hand, the moment I fell in love with one of my longest-reigning favorite songs—and realized that plenty of other songs carry those memories and countless others just as palpably and poignantly, too. Other songs were simply pleasant background noise. A few were head-scratchers that I didn’t even remember listening to before. But they all have their place in my life and its accompanying, always-evolving soundtrack.

This is a work in progress, for sure, but figuring things out as I go along always works best for me anyway. And I like the honesty and flexibility of trusting the process to guide the journey. In the meantime, welcome and please enjoy a self-indulgent romp through thousands of songs and the constellation of memories and they all comprise. I hope you find something that resonates with you as this project, much like the musical taste behind it, adapts and evolves, too.

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