Bas-relief clock


In the music industry, the fate of “the single” is a rather fraught topic. The radical success of Napster, iTunes, iPods and MP3s seem to have proved what music fans had aruged for years: That the vast majority of pop albums had only one or two good songs on them, so buying an entire CD was a bait-and-switch ripoff. You’d hear a fabulous song on the radio (or in a video), rush out to buy the entire album, then discover that the rest of the songs are just outrageously bad. At that point, you’ve just paid $15 to listen to maybe two songs — or $7.50 per song, to be precise. No wonder the concept of buying a single song for 99 cents has been a hit.

I confess that I am a huge, huge fan of the pop single, because I think pop is a genre that is congenitally predisposed to bands and artists that have one — but only one — shining moment of greatness in them. This isn’t to say that an entire, continuous pop album is impossible or undesirable. Clearly, there are tons of ‘em. But pop — far more than serious country, folk, jazz, R&B, classical, etc. — is a creature of nanosecond fads. It consists of spinal-cord-shivering moments of angst and joy that are entirely contingent on the quantum-mechanical interplay of whatever breast-flashing starlets, lifestyle trends, nation-in-peril terrorism threats, two-month-half-life modes of fashion, recreational drugs, economic doom or boom, instantly-disposable-technology, 15-minute-long massive social upheavals and moral panic currently prevail upon the American psyche.

I don’t mean this as a criticism, by the way. Quite the contrary. Pop singles are the sonnets of the marketplace: They are the dominant artistic form for capturing ephermal cultural moods before they vanish, which is also why they’re so good at reminding us, decades later, of what the hell everyone was so worked up about. But that’s also why pop singles simply do not need to be part of an entire album to make sense.

Anyway, I was reminded of the cultural power of the single when I happened upon a way-cool piece of retro tech from 1959: The Braun TPI, a pocket-sized record player that could spin 7-inch singles. It was designed by Dieter Rams, a man who was quite ahead of his time, because he was obsessed with managing the chaos of everyday noise. Emily Gordon wrote some notes about Rams on her blog, emdashes:

Penny Sparke writes that colleagues have described Rams as “a man with an acute sensitivity to order and chaos—one in particular likening him to ‘someone who has a very keen sense of hearing but who is forced to live in a world of shrill dissonance.’ ” Sparke continues, “For him the role of machines in the domestic environment were to be that of ‘silent butlers’: invisible and subservient, and there simply to make living easier and more comfortable. They were to be as self-effacing as possible and leave room for the role of beauty to be played by, say, a vase of flowers (in Rams’s case, the white tulips that he frequently chose to accompany his otherwise austere environments).”

(Thanks to Emily for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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