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Soul Searching 

Americans created the strip mall, the drive-thru, the delivered pizza. We like our convenience -- and it's the same with music.

The accessibility of music in this country has steadily progressed over the years, with more radio stations, more music television, more digital radio, and, perhaps most influentially, the tremendous growth of file sharing. The advent of the digital mp3 format caps a progression from vinyl to eight-track tapes to cassette tapes to compact discs.

With so much attention geared towards the music consumer, why is popular music in America so pathetically awful? We have in place an infrastructure that is designed in every way to accommodate music listeners, yet every time folks turn on the radio or television, they're zapped with the dumb gun. It's as if we built Wrigley Field only to turn it over to the Bad News Bears. What's worse, once brains have built receptors for commercial radio and MTV, they actually begin to crave it and confuse it with something good and desirable. They become deer in the headlights of mistaken love.

Lost in the wake of convenience is a discerning ear for quality music. Popular music hasn't always been this bad, but nobody blinked as rhythm-and-blues artists digressed from Marvin Gaye and Al Green to Ciara and Ashanti. Music producers seem convinced that -- there is no nice way of phrasing this -- only skinny hookers are worthy of a music video.

Some will argue that Marvin Gaye and Al Green were just sexed-up versions of their jazz/blues predecessors, and there's no denying that R & B exudes sexiness. We have traveled, however, from Al Green's chest on his record cover to the virtual lap dances that today's MTV offers. Who stole the soul?

It's easy to blame the music industry. It is unfortunate that record producers and executives have such shallow criteria for marketing videos. They're a shrewd breed whose talent for duping the public into buying what they're selling is rivaled only by politicians and televangelists.

But we can't hang everything on record executives; it takes two to tango. We have to stop playing the part of the moth being lured in by the glow of the bug zapper. There are plenty of intelligent ways for us to interact with music. One obstacle in the way of this is the increasingly homogenized styles of music that dominate the airwaves and MTV.

If we want diverse music, we need to change not just the music we buy, but the way we buy it. If we want more than Top 40 music, then we need to spend more time caring for the music that we collect. And the hobby of collecting music on vinyl is the domain of those who care enough about their music to treasure the time they spend preserving it.

I know, I know -- vinyl isn't as convenient as downloading. Vinyl records are vulnerable to scratching, warping, and will lose sound quality over time. On top of all of this, new records can typically cost more than what you would pay for a compact disc. Which means, to vinyl collectors, that they're perfect.

They're perfect because collecting, playing and preserving records requires healthy amounts of deliberate action that has become obsolete with other recording mediums. It's a more tactile experience to drop a needle onto a record compared to clicking "download" on the computer. While it is possible to shop for vinyl online, scouring thrift stores and record shops for that one special find isn't just a more rewarding experience, it's the only way to get the good shit.

Maybe the most endearing characteristic of vinyl is that it's an original article. Unlike CDs, it's not possible to make duplicate copies for $1. Unlike digital music, it possesses concrete form. In this sense, vinyl retains higher value over time. It seems the qualities that make digital music appealing -- such as peace of mind your favorite song won't scratch the next time you go to play it -- are the same reasons vinyl can be treasured.

Vinyl's vulnerability likens it to a piece of art that needs to be preserved and taken care of over time. It is a reminder that music, like its creators, is temporary and imperfect yet beautiful.

This isn't to suggest that collecting vinyl is the only solution to combating the forces that degrade music. It does however place consumers in a more conscious state of discretion regarding what they will listen to. Without the lure of free downloads, copied disks or gigabytes upon gigabytes of music fitting neatly into a pocket, your collection of music will be a genuine reflection of music that you personally value.

There is no simple solution to the catastrophic phenomenon that is American popular music. The best we can do is to remind ourselves that music is larger than the technologies and record executives that manipulate it and package it. If music is treated with the reverence it deserves, it won't be difficult to separate the contrived from the goods.

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