Listening to the first five tracks of Radiohead's new album, Kid A
(that's all I've - gasp! - downloaded so far) I notice intensely the way that Napster technology distorts my traditional experience
of music. The enormous hype and expectation building around this still unreleased record hold no meaning here; there's been no financial or emotional investment yet, no bizarre album cover to stare at, no lyrics to scrutanize, no weight of popular opinion telling me this release is monumental/disappointing. With Radiohead perhaps more than any other band, this lack of context is bizarre, and liberating.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that I lost my copy of OK Computer about two years ago, and never got around to replacing it (why bother, when there's always so much new music to discover? I really liked that album - loved it even, when I first got it - but now I can only rely on a fading memory of its quality, and certainly any "attachment" I might have had to it clearly no longer exists, or else I would have repurchased it long since.
Still, Radiohead are a band who usually demand a large reaction - either hosannas to the hills or vicious attack - and so my strangely muted reaction to this music surprises me. It's not that I don't like it. In fact, I think it's pretty excellent; a totally textural work whose aural attractions can be appreciated largely separate from the socio-cultural discourse surrounding their work ever since OK Computer. "How To Disappear Completely..." in particular is a gorgeous piece of music in and of itself (one thing that came to annoy me subsequent to loving OK Computer was the way in which critics/fans had to reference the band's "vision", and the implicit suggestion that this rendered them superior to bands with similar or greater musical ambitions ie. Bark Psychosis.).
No, my reaction is muted in that I can't attach myself to it as the work of the band Radiohead. I can't even really think of it as an album (though that may change). Rather, it's just ephemeral music floating out of my computer speakers, with no implied value other than that which I give it as I receive it. There's no sense in which I'm listening to this more closely or carefully than any other mp3s I've downloaded - no sense in which this first experience is important in any way. If I'd heard this music only in the context of having bought Kid A from a shop, the experience would doubtless be quite different.
I most often use Napster (or should I say, Macster) to download pop/hip hop/r&b/garage tracks (ie. music which is very comfortable within the singles format) rather than fuller bodies of work by established artists within "serious" mediums. I guess, despite my staunch defence of them, I still see all those musics as being ephemeral, of the moment, and hence eminently suited to the solipsistic isolation of the mp3 format.
It may be that the distinction between pop-music and the more worthy, considered album-format music (eg. Radiohead) is an artificial construct, which deliberately preferencing certain music as Napster-able actually seeks to maintain. Whether de(con)structing these assumptions about music is a positive or a negative thing is so far unclear to me. I suppose it might become clearer when I have more certain opinions about the Radiohead album.