TOWER OF BABEL, TOWER OF MUSIC
Spotify and Its Infinite Towers of Songs
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
In her song “Land,” rocker Patti Smith once sang: “At that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after.” I am not sure what she was after in saying those words, but I do know that in the ears of an interpreter, “Land” traces the mini-apocalypse of a person lost in the echoes of a single song.
The song’s hero and his nemesis-slash-lover crash into a scrambled landscape somewhere out there in the Land of a Thousand Dances. Boney Maroney and the Mashed Potato and the Watusi and the Twist are there. And there are horses and blades and Rimbaud. It’s day and night, a waking dream, odd sexual contortions, and then finally: “In the sheets there was a man dancing around to the simple rock and roll song.”
“Land” demonstrates how a great song can rupture and redefine the frames of reality. A great song is all songs in one song, all life melding into a single, boundless, trippy dream. Inside the musical form is a God of ultimate passion and chaos, but only complete immersion allows the listener to feel this truth.
Such oneness was present at the Tower of Babel, where humanity was gathered in one single language, terrifying God that mortals might climb in body or words to the highest places of the divine. What happens when language or movement or song bursts through the facade of multiplicity and produces complete alignment with the One? What happens, in the words of Paul Simon about Jonah, when a person “is swallowed by a song” instead of a whale?
It may be hearkening the pangs of the Messiah, but an online service has come to answer this question right now. I have seen rock and roll’s future, and it is inward, singular, private, nostalgic, and right before me on the screen. It’s in the phone in my hand. It’s my head. It’s in my head. It’s like the boy in twisted sheets on the bed. Like the babble of Babel and the freezing of the spheres at the thought of being overcome by humanity. Such are the voices of Spotify.
Forget the usual business with artists’ collected works, Dylan and Springsteen and Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell and all the rest. This is not what Spotify is for. It’s for collapsing time completely. It provides absolute access to any and all songs. Spotify takes you to the first places where music moved and the tower teetered. So where do we begin to hunt for voices? It starts with the songs you loved and have not heard in a very long time – likely since teenage days – and you hunt them down rapidly and obsessively: Billy Squier. The English Beat. Early Hall and Oates. Gerry Rafferty. The Jam.
There’s never been such intense and immense access to music. It started with LPs, then cassettes and then CDs. Then it was all digital – the revolution. Then file sharing and bit torrents and iPods and that Romanian Internet radio station and oh-so-many-others on the web streaming everything live in boggling profusion. But Spotify boils it down. It’s legal and it’s free. We can build playlists of every intent and desire unto the sky. It is, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s phrase, the ultimate “Tower of Song,” but not with any physical form. Not a smell, nor a touch, nor any space but the virtual one, where all things meld into one infinite thing. It is a place where even our most vivid memories are but flashing stars here and gone. It is Babel.