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How The Microwave Generation Is Burning Music

MicrowavePost by Annie Licata (‏@annie_licata).

Go ahead, turn on music and do anything else in the world besides actually listen to it. No one will blame you. Who can, when everyone else is doing the same thing? Whether you’re the playlist-for-every-occasion type person, or just the type to throw Pandora on because the thought of being alone with your thoughts is just scary, the way we are listening to music is changing.

Back when we used to buy CDs from the store, you would pop them into the player in your car or Walkman and go through the songs. Sure, you might have skipped some songs that you didn’t like at first. More times than not, though, you’d circle back around, and after a while the songs you thought you hated were really the songs that became your favorites. You were listening. Now, the rate at which we pick and pull songs through our iPhones—what I’ve come to think of as digital music filing cabinets—creates a convenience that inherently limits exposure and absorption.

The experience of circling back around to the songs you thought you hated is undermined by the luxury of picking and choosing only what we want to hear. I never really liked “Carry That Weight” from Abbey Road, but I couldn’t listen to the album in succession and just skip the song. It clearly resulted in a break in the flow that The Beatles didn’t intend. Albums still have that flow, but we’re not hearing it. We’re too busy searching song titles on YouTube and Spotify.

Hearing only what we want to hear is inevitable in the digital age. It’s easy to seek out that one song off the album that trump the others, or press “dislike” on Pandora and poof, it’s on to the next one. It’s convenient and satisfying for my so-called “microwave generation," ones who seek immediate satisfaction similar to feelings felt from the final ding of that TV dinner. But it changes the way we hear what we’re listening to, and the way the artist intended for us to hear it. 

Active listening is an underrated skill. Just because our ears soak up the sound waves doesn't mean our mind actually processes them. For listeners today, music serves as a comforting sound, like sleeping with a fan in the winter. But it's more than just the background noise of life. Music is emotional, and aren’t we? We crave those heart-wrenching ballads during a bad breakup, or those rock songs that we abuse our steering wheels to. It’s what attracts us to certain genres and artists, and even to music as a whole. We want to feel a connection, but we’re disconnected. 

When we’re stuck in traffic or at a live show is probably the closest we get to active listening without consciously realizing it. We’re forced to be engaged in the moment, and to concentrate on what we’re hearing. If we took the way we listened to music in these moments and used those skills in our everyday music listening sessions, it would bring us a higher level of satisfaction. 

We have become a generation of people who need to be captive to enjoy music. We don’t pick songs apart like the words of a poem, and embrace them as knowledge over entertainment. There’s definitely still a connection between what we hear and what we feel. People still listen to music and soak it in, but to be aware of that connection—and harness it in a way that will better us as listeners and artists—we must understand that music is just as much about the response as it is the comprehension. Thinking about music and responding to it breathes life into our culture. 

Music that makes us think is just as, if not more, important than music that makes us dance. Active listening can change the way we consume music and enhance our experience of it. The next time you turn music on, shut the world off—become rapt with the music and feel the movement.

Annie Licata is an intern at, studying Magazine Journalism and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University. She's also the editor in chief of the music magazine 20 Watts. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Spotify, in my opinion, actually allows us to “listen” the way you think albums should be listened to, by allowing us to dive into an artists catalog and check out tracks we otherwise probably would never had heard before.

  2. I think the issue with Pandora and Spotify is that it basically gives us the option to immediately decide if we don’t like a song. If we give it the thumbs down we won’t hear it again. And we definitely don’t hear it in the context of the album it was made for, so we aren’t hearing it as the artist intended. Spotify and Pandora also give us the option to skip a song too quickly because there is an unlimited amount of options available. I agree with the microwave metaphor. Immediate satisfaction instead of a longer, more organic, better satisfaction.

  3. The down side to all this is that when I was forced to listen to almost every track on an album, sometimes I would find hidden gems I would have otherwise never have heard. Now days I’m too impatient & I don’t HAVE to sit thru a new tune I’ve never heard before. It’s turned me into a constant ‘skipper’. That’s one of the many reasons I prefer records…it’s too much work to keep skipping to the next song or artist.

  4. This is SPOT (excuse the pun) ON! I am currently smack in the middle of a new album (yeah…sigh…I still call them “albums”) and I am VERY VERY DELIBERATELY thinking of the “pacing” between songs and sometimes within the individual song itself. My resulting album will have had so many listens BEFORE I release it (by me on the way to work and back) that I can’t count them. All of it designed to so thoroughly “vet” the album that I can look back years later, give it a spin, and be absolutely satisfied that it was the BEST I had to give. For people to skip, fold, spindle, or otherwise mutilate (or even “randomize”!) my product is somewhat saddening to me, however, I tend to soften the blow to my ego by simply taking the lowest common denominator approach that at LEAST folks are listening to it and the real listeners WILL indeed take the time to listen to the album in the order it was designed and to even (dare I hope?) hear every single little intricacy I included. As a simple experiment, go listen to Supertramp’s song “Asylum” (from Crime of the Century) and (probably with in-ears on) go to about 6:20 and somewhere around 6:37 you’ll hear a cuckoo clock close out the song. DETAILS! They’re cool!

  5. Spotify’s model seems to be based on convenience and probably attracts people who want just that. Anyone who is interested in interesting music is likely to get very frustrated there. There is little point walking into a huge department store and complaining about the lack of underground art.

  6. The effect this ‘Microwave Generation’ has on the way songs are written is fairly obvious as well, as it seems to be an increasing volume of catchy riffs in an intro, and repetitive hooks over dance beats dominating the pop charts.
    Anything that hasn’t been released as a single seems to be ignored on platforms such as Spotify, but suddenly when it’s released as a single and exposed, the same people that would skip over it would instead put it on repeat.
    It’s especially sad that album structure has become less important to consumers, despite the fact so many artists are telling a story with the holistic record. It’s kinda like taking a really awesome chapter out of a novel and not understanding it in context. Or even worse, rather than shuffling a whole iPod, shuffling just one album – it just doesn’t make that much sense and doesn’t show much respect for the artists and the stories they want to tell.

  7. Repeating myself: In the good old days, music records were the only home multi-media entertainment where YOU could select the programming. You had your record collection; you could pick a book or magazine; or you could access whatever the radio or the 3-5 TV stations were choosing for you.
    So records (and the early days of CDs) didn’t have much competition for your attention at home. Even well into the CD era there were only 30 TV channels, and home Internet had not become a mass phenomenon.
    Now? Home video, gaming, the Internet and 100-200 TV channels are all competing for that attention that Music used to command. And Music is very nostalgic for the time when it had a greater hold on your attention.

  8. @ wallow-T: agreed, but nothing has the power to move you like a great piece of music does. MAYBE a rare great film, but they take over an hour at least to do so – music can do it in 3 minutes. It’s not nostalgia, it’s how we humans operate.

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