Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Record Breaking

I just bought my first MP3 album. It wasn’t for me, of course. I bought it as a gift for a newly-13-year-old. Within seconds of me hitting the Buy button, he could yank the full contents of They Might Be Giants’ 1990 geeky masterwork Flood into the heart of his new-to-him iPod Touch. He’s probably doing it right now. (That sound you hear is the space-time continuum collapsing in on itself.)

I have an iTunes account and a spacious iPod myself, but I consider them the Readers Digest version of my own CD collection. I still believe in actual factual physical albums and would have trouble trusting a record that existed only as a link. I believe in cover art and liner notes. I believe in listening to a new record from front to back, over and over, until you can anticipate the next song by hearing the closing notes of the last one.

I can probably blame that bias on my upbringing. I was raised on vinyl, of course. Thanks to an active membership with Columbia House through the ‘80s (whether they wanted it or not), my folks kept up with the popular music of the day and I was brought up with those songs in my everyday life. The turntable was kept up high, and my sister and I were discouraged from messing with it, which meant we very rarely skipped a song. I liked some tracks better than others, but I knew them all. It was our family’s soundtrack.

We did also have tapes in the house. Not cassettes, mind you, but actual reel-to-reel spools. Sort of the iPods of their day, really, since you could put six hours’ worth of recordings on each reel. It would never have occurred to my parents to stand over the turntable to make a giant mix tape, though, so each delicate disc contained half a dozen albums converted from vinyl in their entirety. The fast-forward and rewind lever was clunky and unreliable, even if you could remember which way the tape was playing, so it was usually best to just let it play on through. As a result, I don’t really have any idea where each Beatles album ends and the next begins, and hearing the J. Geils Band always makes me feel like listening to Eddie Rabbit.

I’ve tried to maintain that sense of musical community with my kids, but I’m afraid my efforts are no match for my technological foes. The music they hear most often is broadcast from the iPod dock in the kitchen, a randomized mix of thousands of songs from hundreds of albums. When I was my daughter’s age, I could recognize dozens of artists by face and voice, but I doubt she could list five artists from my collection (including those who’ve stayed at our house). Music is just something that’s there in the background, compressed into crappy little digital packets that make everything sound like it’s coming from another room no matter where it originates.

The best hope I have of giving my children a musical education is in the car, where I still plunk CDs into the stereo during our morning commute. They hear the same songs often enough to recognize them and sing along, although they still make impatient requests to skip ahead to what they like best. Hearing “Play track seven!” squealed from the backseat is bittersweet. I’m glad when they find something they like and connect with, but I wonder if they’ll ever be patient enough to listen to twelve new songs in a row, and then listen to them again. I’d have missed out on some of my favorite music if I hadn’t been willing to give it a first, second, and sometimes third chance. We’ve come to an era when most people hunt out and buy the music they already like, instead of taking a risk on something they’ve never heard before. All we disc-based dinosaurs can do is try to pass along our own musical memories, one uber-geeky album at a time.


  1. I've had my own existential crisis with this sort of thing recently. I've slowly been ripping stuff from our huge and unwieldy CD collection, which has long been banished to an upstairs closet. I've had to make hard decisions about CDs I used to love-- like, I've ALWAYS skipped Venus de Milo on Parade, because it sounds like awful elevator music. Do I banish that song forever by not ripping it? I mean, I've never found it pleasant to listen to, so why would I ever want it to pop up when playing MP3s? But then, it's part of the whole artistic vision of that album, am I being shallow by sending it to oblivion?

  2. Chip, I've ripped almost every CD I own and then I've unchecked some songs in iTunes so they never come up. It's in there if I want it, but I usually don't want it.