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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 1999 /4 Tishrei

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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As certainly as `lovely Rita' follows `when i'm 64' . . . --
THE WAY THE WORLD will change in the new century has already, four months before we get there, been the subject of many predictions and much conjecture.

But there is one seemingly minor way the world will change -- this is no mere guess, it's really going to happen -- that may have an effect on us far beyond the obvious.

Giant music conglomerates are gearing up to offer a new kind of compact disc -- one that, some music industry experts say, has the potential to eventually far outsell the current type of CD, which in turn has all but totally replaced the old vinyl record albums.

The new CDs will be programmed not by the record companies, but by the consumers. Instead of buying a CD with 10 or 12 songs by a single band or singer -- some of which songs the purchaser probably doesn't even want -- consumers will select individual songs from an electronically generated list, made available in music stores.

Then store employees will press some buttons -- and the buyer will walk out with the CD he or she has put together. One track from this band, one track from that band, one track from this singer. . . .

No two CDs will be alike. Each person leaving the store will have his or her custom-made CD. The technology is already there -- now the music companies are getting ready to make the custom CDs the next huge entertainment phenomenon. Why buy some band's or record company's selection of songs when you can have your own?

Which sounds pretty good.

So what's the problem here?

It's one more sliver in the erosion of something that is steadily being lost in our world: a collective experience, a common memory, a national thread.


Because one of the things about the old record albums -- and the more recent CDs -- was that everyone who bought a copy got used to hearing the same songs in the same order. You'd hear one song end, and you knew what was coming next. And people all across the country knew it, too.

Just as certainly as summer leads into autumn, just as certainly as February leads into March, "A Hard Day's Night" leads into "Tell Me Why" leads into "I Cry Instead." At least on the album -- on millions of albums -- that was the natural order or things, and it was the same order in millions of memories. What happens when "Sweet Baby James" comes to an end? "Lo and Behold" begins, to be followed by "Sunny Skies," to be followed by "Steamroller." "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" leads to "Night Moves" leads to "The Fire Down Below"; "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" leads to "When I Grow Up to Be a Man" leads to "Help Me, Rhonda" leads to "Dance, Dance, Dance." . . .

So what? What is lost when consumers convert to the new make-your-own-sundae CDs?

Just that national thread -- that's all. You gain the freedom to put your own CDs together (which is a considerable advance, in many ways -- it will do away with all those annoying filler tracks that bands and singers have always thrown onto their albums when they don't have enough truly good material, and the record company's deadline is upon them).

But there was something sweetly comforting, as you listened to the last lovely chords of "I've Just Seen a Face," to know for a fact that "Norwegian Wood" was coming next -- and that every person in the world who was listening to "I've Just Seen a Face" was going to hear "Norwegian Wood" next, too. Lack of freedom? Ah, maybe. But probably nothing that severe.

It was just society's way, up until now. It's like the cable television revolution -- with dozens upon dozens of channels, which will grow to hundreds soon enough, there is a really terrific selection of programs available to watch on TV, all the time. A much wider and richer choice than when everyone, at the same time, was watching the three big, old networks every night in the days before cable.

So in same way that cable has added to the fracturing of the culture, while at the same time making that culture more diverse and interesting, so the new CDs will put unheard of editing power in the hands of music lovers -- while taking away a little something that was part of the dusty, wheezing, 20th Century.

Which is as it should be, no doubt. The 21st Century will follow the 20th, just as inexorably as "You Like Me Too Much" follows "Eight Days a Week."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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