Autumn Phillips: Open mouth

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It's time to have "the talk."Mom, when do I know that I need an iPod?

"The time is now, Autumn," a friend said Tuesday. "Most of my music is digitized, and I'm not taking care of my CDs anymore."

It happened so fast, but the way we listen to music has changed.

The first iPod I saw was almost three years ago. I was doing a story in Oak Creek about Bill Norris' massive record collection. He was an early days DJ for KFMU back when the radio station was in Oak Creek. He showed me this small silver box where he was busy storing everything from his vinyl records so he could hear the music without further deteriorating his collection.

He let me pick it up. It was so small and light. So fascinating. So ... something I would never buy.

Two years later, I started noticing them everywhere. My friends started buying iPods and bringing them to my house to show me how we could listen to 1,200 songs if we wanted. And if I would just get an iPod -- we could plug in and share our collections with each other.

At first, I thought it was just another "must have" passing fad such as the Cabbage Patch Kids doll or the Beanie Baby or the Live Strong yellow bracelet.

I've started to realize that it's more than that.

My fascination and repulsion with the iPod is just the growing pains I'm feeling as we enter a new musical era.

Like vinyl to cassette tape and cassette tape to CD, we seem to be evolving into a new media -- CD to digital ether.

Already, I'm a music pig, and easy access to digitized music isn't helping. Right now, I have the largest music collection of my life, but I don't actually have it. It's on my computer.

With music available on the Internet for cents per song and music given to me by friends to download, I've never owned most of my music.

For half of my music, I wouldn't recognize the CD cover if it was projected above my bed because I've never seen it.

The ritual of music buying has been diminished to something as intangible as a series of mouse clicks.

Let us go back in time.

I was younger than I am now, making sprints from my hometown of Casper, Wyo., to the big metropolis of Denver. We were too young to go to bars and listen to bands. In fact, we were probably too young to be driving to Denver by ourselves.

But there we were. The to-do list was always the same. Stop at Muddy's for a cup of tea or coffee. (We read about Muddy's in one of Jack Kerouac's books, so we always had to go there.) Then we would stop at Wax Trax to buy some music before heading back.

I had yet to perfect my technique of walking on top of the albums with my fingers allowing me to look at the maximum amount of music in the minimum amount of time. Back then, it was still a slow and clumsy click, click, click as I searched and simultaneously wondered whether the counter boy thought I was cute.

I would buy a few CDs and stare at their covers on the long drive home. (We didn't have a CD player in the car.) I would open them up and read the liner notes aloud. I couldn't wait to get home and listen to what I'd bought.

Let us return to the present.

I haven't bought an iPod yet. Somehow, I can still live without one. But I have one foot in the new era.

I know I sound like one of the people who complained about CDs stealing the soul of music as they usurped vinyl, but I already feel like the digital age of music is a less personal one and an obsessively compulsive consumerist one.

Examine: my new music collection habits.

I come home and turn on my Apple PowerBook G4. Click on iTunes. Hit shuffle and play and let the music pour out of my "stereo."

Even as I listen, I add more music.

There's something about that iTunes window that looks like an open mouth. It makes you want to add more and more music. It almost doesn't matter what it is.

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