Listening #3

If I wrote a column for a car magazine and I learned that the magazine's readers were using their cars to run over kittens, I would be deeply troubled. I would beg them to stop. Failing that, I would find another line of work.

I'm faced with a similar dilemma: Some audio enthusiasts are listening to the worst junk imaginable on their expensive hi-fis—listening to it and apparently liking it, or at least not finding it sufficiently objectionable to stop.

Is an audiophile's choice of listening material really just a matter of taste? Up to a point, yes. I don't share some listeners' love for Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, or Gilbert & Sullivan, yet I can understand their appeal to others: The aforementioned are, or were, artists of talent and vision, whether or not I enjoy their music.

But certain absolutes govern the universe: There's no reason to listen more than once to a recording of New Orleans jazz played by Scandinavian men in cardigan sweaters, howsoever skillful or sincere. With so many superb symphonic performances in the catalog, paying to own a record of a third- or fourth-rate orchestra stumbling through the standard repertoire is at least mildly perverse. And while I can comfort myself with the assumption that singer Carole Pope now limits her microphone time to such free verse as "price check at register two," the notion that anyone on God's great earth would want to waste a minute of their lives listening to the recordings of her hilariously awful band, Rough Trade, remains, for me, one of life's minor mysteries.

Welcome to the world of audiophile music, where record-buying decisions are motivated not by a love of music but by a love of sound. What's worse is that the people who drive this market don't even use their own ears to select software: They buy what the audio critics and salon owners and other gurus tell them to buy. Then, after pretending to enjoy this vomitus for as long as they can, they either abandon consumer electronics altogether or shuffle over to the home-theater market, where the demonstration software at least stands a chance of being entertaining. Say what you will, but The Fifth Element and Mission: Impossible are well-crafted films that can succeed in holding the average viewer's attention for reasons beyond the mere quality of their camera work; on the other hand, bad travelogue music and arrangements of Wagner overtures for wind ensemble don't succeed on any artistic level, and undiscovered lounge singers tend to stay undiscovered for a very good reason.

In fact, audiophiles could be forgiven for wondering if some reviewers are pulling their legs, so perversely awful are their choices in software. My friend and former Listener colleague Rob Doorack and I once considered exploiting that axiom for the sheer nasty fun of it: While shopping for used LPs in Greenwich Village one Saturday afternoon, we stumbled on a copy of a (mostly) spoken-word record by the late US Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr., a folksy raconteur who gained fame as the chair of the Senate Watergate hearings. The record, Senator Sam at Home (Columbia KC 32756), was meant to paint an aural picture of Ervin speaking from the rocking chair on his front porch. Rob and I had the idea to do a bit of embroidery, in an effort to wind up our audiophile friends—to suggest, for instance, that when played on systems of the highest resolution, it would be possible to detect the hinges on Sam's screen door quietly squeaking, or to hear all the way back into the kitchen...

That brings to mind another unfortunate characteristic of the relationship between audio gurus and their followers: the sickeningly devotional urge of the latter to offer up records to the former, in hopes that those records will gain recognition as being of Reference Quality, perhaps even offering something that's never before been described in print: subway trains, crickets, cufflinks, digestive noises, whatever. I admit, I did the same thing myself when I worked for The Abso!ute Sound, leaving records in the former editor's mailbox the way Renfield offered up flies to his master.

But in time, I remembered what it was that drew me to the hobby in the first place, and I redirected my attention toward the music itself. It wasn't too late to save myself, but it was too late to save the hundreds of dollars I'd wasted in an effort to punctuate my collection with records that I mistakenly thought would guarantee my permanent membership in The Club. In a selfless effort to keep you from wasting your time and money, I offer the following list of the Five Warning Signs of Musical Bankruptcy, which you may also think of as...