Music writer and candy fanatic Steve Almond (one of my wife’s college classmates, interestingly) has a nice piece in the Boston Globe about music, materiality, and memory:

I start browsing the discs, and inevitably find one I haven’t heard in years and slip it onto the crappy boom-box I keep down there and pretty soon the record has transported me back to the exact time and place where I first fell in love with it. The physical object, in other words, becomes a time machine. And who in their right mind would throw away a time machine?

The younger generation has no romantic attachments to records as physical objects. To them, music exists as a kind of omnipresent atmospheric resource.

And it’s not that I begrudge them their online treasure troves or bite-size iPods. But I still miss the way it used to be, in the old days, when fans had to invest serious time and money to track down the album or song they wanted.

What I’m getting at here is a deeper irony: technology has made the pursuit of our pleasures much easier. But in so doing, I often wonder if it has made them less sacred. My children will grow up in a world that makes every song they might desire instantly available to them. And yet I sort of pity them that they will never know the kind of yearning I did.

As a young kid, before I could even afford records, I listened to the radio. I waited, sometimes hours, for the DJ to play one of the idiotic pop songs with which I’d (idiotically) fallen in love. And yet I can still remember the irrational glee I felt when the DJ finally did play “Undercover Angel” or “The Things We Do for Love.”

Almond and I are the same age, and I completely get where he’s coming from: I can still remember the pleasure of my favorite song finally coming on the radio, and rediscovering old music can sometimes be a Proustian experience.

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But I don’t feel like something is really lost by moving from one playback medium to another. Or rather, I understand why Almond feels that way, but it’s not a universal for our generation.

Why do I think this? Maybe it’s because, despite the audiophile’s fetishization of the LP, I grew up in a pretty technologically heterogeneous musical environment: I had LPs, 45s, cassette tapes, a few 8-tracks, and of course the radio (AM and FM). The vinyl LP is the first edition book of the music world, the technological object that comes to stand for an era or cultural moment, and in so doing obscures all the other kinds of printed matter that surrounded us way back before personal computers but didn’t have much cultural significance (who has mourned the decline of the Sears catalog in the age of the Web?). So when CDs came along, it was kind of just one more thing.

I also think Almond somewhat overplays the idea that for kids, “music exists as a kind of omnipresent atmospheric resource,” as if it didn’t for us. How many times did our parents say, “Turn that music down!” How many times did we choose a particular restaurant, or go to the pool, or hang out somewhere, partly because of the music? I don’t remember music being a rare commodity when I was a kid. It might have been harder to make it completely private– to go out in public plugged into your own audio universe, the way my kids do with their iPods– but the music was definitely there.

Another reason my experience differs is that I don’t have a gigantic record collection that I’ve built up over decades. I once had a lot of LPs. Then I replaced them with a lot of CDs. Then all my CDs got stolen (I love Berkeley!). Then I rebuilt my collection, and again have a lot of CDs.

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So iTunes– and more recently things like Concert Vault– allowed me to rediscover a lot of music that I hadn’t heard in decades. In other words, Almond and I have the same experience, only he has in his basement, and I have mine online. (There are virtues in deleting and forgetting, but on the whole I prefer rediscovery. Though you can’t have the last without one of the first two, I suppose.)

But there’s one other thing: as I discovered when I first upgraded to OS X and started dropping money into iTunes, finding an old song usually doesn’t involve getting back in touch with something I hadn’t heard in a long time. Just as often it’s about rediscovering the music. As I discovered about five years ago,

When I was young, I always had pretty lousy stereo equipment– often just a portable AM/FM radio, or a $39 stereo from K-Mart– and it turns out that, even though I heard some of these songs a thousand times, there was a lot of detail I missed. Now I hear it. Twenty years later.

Though it won’t be long before we start fondly remembering CDs or the early days of music on the Web…. Actually, MIT professor Henry Jenkins has already gotten nostalgic: years ago he compared Napster and iTunes, and argued that for his generation, the former was far superior. “iTunes is about music as commodity,” he wrote. “Napster was about music as mutual experience. iTunes is about cheap downloads; Napster was about file sharing– with sharing the key word.”

For me, the process of rediscovering music is more like the experience of reconnecting with people on Facebook than being transported back in time: yes, they have the same names as they did when they were in college (well, some of them have the same names), but they’re not the same people– and neither are you. But it’s still nice to hear from– or just hear– them.

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[To the tune of Greg Lake, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” from the album Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, London (November 5 1981) (I give it 3 stars).]

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