Jukebox Hero

Radar Station battles with too many choices

I recently found myself at Q's in the Central West End, pondering Sturgeon's Law: 90 percent of everything is crap.

I wasn't applying the law to Q's -- as ordinary a sports bar as you can find, a good place to munch chicken wings and stare numbly at a TV, but overlit and easily crowded and aimed at pouring beers down throats. For me the most salable feature of the place is the fact that it's half a block from my apartment.

That's why I was there with a few of the aforementioned wings, a club soda and a book. (Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, if you were wondering; much better than the Matt Damon movie.) You might already see a flaw in my plan: Books and Buffalo wings don't mix. The only solution is to eat with one hand and read with the other, which gets difficult with meat on the bone and page-turning. To distract myself, I decided to drop a buck into the jukebox.

But that thing is from another planet. Maybe I spend too much time in smoky little throwback rock clubs -- well, I know I spend too much time in smoky little throwback rock clubs, but that's another topic -- but the brave new world of broadband-powered digital jukeboxes makes my jaw drop. The old jukes that played 45s are cherished antiques, and now those CD boxes with the turning pages are last year's model. The box at Q's threw me into a modern existential crisis:

Ten thousand CDs to choose from. Pick three songs.

Science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon might not have set the world on fire with his prose, but he did give us Sturgeon's Law. (Actually, he used the word "crud," not "crap," but nobody uses the word "crud" anymore, so let's go with "crap.") If you ever want to see Sturgeon's Law in action, check out the selection on a broadband jukebox. You can fit a lot of crap onto the Internet: Did you know Britney Spears actually puts songs besides her singles on her albums? Did you know one of them is a cover of "Satisfaction"?

By this point I'd been at the jukebox for a frightening amount of time. I was locked in the paralysis of the modern man, frozen by too many choices, as James Joyce explained in Ulysses. (I'm taking an old professor's word on that; I kinda skimmed the book.) How could I ever make the right pick?

By making it. These modern jukeboxes have to be navigated layer by layer. First you choose a letter -- "R," let's say. You're presented with many, many bands that start with the letter R. The Rolling Stones start with "R," and though I've never heard Britney's version of "Satisfaction," I'd stake my life the Stones' is better. Sticky Fingers, my favorite Stones album, finally jolted me from my reverie, and I went for "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." A great choice, owing to its Keith Richards hook and the fact that the song usually gets left off the Stones' best-ofs that get crammed into old jukeboxes, but also because it's more than seven minutes long, courtesy of Mick Taylor's gargantuan solo. Got to get your money's worth.

I quickly found Rufus Wainwright's first album and picked two tracks, just to mess with the masculine mood of Q's, and because it made for a suitably gay soundtrack for Mr. Ripley's closeted misadventures.

Some will lament the death of the old CD jukeboxes. These people are wrong. Like people who worry that iPods and iTunes are going to destroy the CD shop, these mourners are attaching nostalgia to an item that doesn't deserve it. Vinyl fetishists have a point: Records sound warm, sensual. And the broad expanse of a record sleeve gave birth to some really cool art. But CDs are just a placeholder technology that we should toss out as soon as possible. I've got almost 10,000 songs on my laptop (no iPod yet, alas) and can access thousands more at the neighborhood bar. It might be so much choice it can overload your brain, but I'll take that over scratchy, ugly CDs any day. We might not have flying cars or robot butlers (no jetpacks or Asimos yet either, dammit), but the future is now.

A few weeks ago, I mixed up two bands playing with the Phonocaptors and made some comments about a band that I thought was the Bloody Hollies -- but it was really the Bamboo Kids. My apologies.

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