A few months ago I bought an iPod Mini to replace my second-generation iPod, which a friend of mine referred to as "that old sardine can." The Mini's great, and it has a little screen where an image of the cover of the album you're listening to appears. You can download these pretty easily by going to the iTunes drop-down menu and clicking on "Get Album Artwork" — the artwork is then beamed down from a space station, I think. But what happens when the songs are not from an album, or an EP, or a single, or any other self-contained entity that comes with its own cover art, but rather from the broad category of demos, live tracks, studio sessions, and other downloadable miscellanea that proliferates on the Internet?
For instance, this year I fell in love with the music of Bon Iver. I bought his album, For Emma, Forever Ago, and then the follow-up EP, Blood Bank, and these reside on my iTunes with their little covers intact. But then poking around on-line I also found a set of live acoustic versions of songs from the album that he recorded for something called "The MySpace Transmissions," and then an amazing cover of Feist's "The Park" that he played one time when he was a guest on an Australian radio program, and then some live bootlegs from the Glastonbury Music Festival, and another live track of him duetting with the National at Radio City Music Hall...and these just float around out there in pure musical form without any images attached to them. What happens when they play on my iPod? Well, an Apple-supplied little graphic of an eighth-note appears on the screen, and I do not like that eighth-note one bit. It is flat, colorless, stripped of identity and meaning. It is the death of art.
Reader, I spent every free moment of two weeks replacing those harmless-looking icons with digital photos of the relevant musicians that I found on the Web. Not just any photos — I sorted through all of the pictures of the artists that I could find in search of just the right one. I didn't want any photo of a musician performing in concert, for example, even if the file that I was matching it to was of a live recording. I like watching live shows okay, but most pictures of live shows are dim and boring, the musicians all striking the same poses. You can take a great photograph of a musician just about anywhere else, though, and I lifted pictures of Sufjan Stevens standing in front of the window of a Sufi bookstore, Vampire Weekend fiddling around with their instruments on a bridge above a railway line, and a fashionably suited Colin Meloy posing next to a model of a clipper ship. I found a great one of Bon Iver holding a cat.
During those two weeks of cutting and pasting pictures, I frequently asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" My boyfriend kept coming by my desk and asking, "Is something bothering you?" It was, of course, a thoroughly pointless exercise. Nobody else cared if every song on my iPod had a little photo attached to it. In fact, when it came right down to it, even I didn't care that much. I didn't like those musical notes, but I wasn't losing sleep over them. And the things I could have been doing instead — reading Bleak House, or learning Spanish, or starting an herb garden! But when the job was done and I could dial through the "Cover Flow" function, in which all of the listener's song-images flip by like cards passing through a magician's skilled hands, I was...whoa, wait. What's this? Superchunk performing a live acoustic version of "Detroit Has a Skyline" on WUNC. No photo, just that stupid eighth-note. Have to fix that... Anyway, when I saw all of these pictures shuffle past, I was inordinately pleased, as though I had accomplished something great. You have to seize control where you can.