04 September 2010

An Unoriginal Lament Concerning Technology

The other night, I was laying in bed reading while listening to Vijay Iyer on my iPod, and I began thinking about our changing relationship with music. This is by no means an original thought, but our relationship with recorded music has moved from the physical realm to an ethereal space which eludes definition. Until a few years ago, we experienced recorded music through physical objects; acetates, vinyl, reels, cassettes, and CDs, among other media. While these physical artifacts did not necessarily enhance our appreciation of the music contained therein (though in many cases I would argue they did, but more on that some other time), because they required work to obtain, they became part of our identity. The first generation of jazz critics were record collectors. Because early recordings of jazz were so difficult to obtain (record stores of the time did not keep much of a back catalogue, and big box music stores had yet to take root), a network of record-collecting magazines and newsletters became necessary for collectors and enthusiasts to share information and discuss the records they had worked so hard to track down. The vast collections of these jazz nerds (the first jazz nerds, long before Jason Marsalis distorted the badge of identity) became part of the collectors' identity, physical relics of their slavish devotion to the music they loved so much.

                  Some of Dad's records, in my living room
This pattern of music collection as identity repeated itself as new media came and went, and it was not limited to jazz. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other figures of the British Invasion collected pressings of American blues musicians. Early hip hop DJs wore out their copies of Funkadelic records. You could tell a lot about a person by looking at their record or CD collection. These were often displayed in prominent places in someone's home, where guests could see right away what their host was listening to. If you ever got bored at a party, you could take a look through the host's music, and usually you would find something of interest, an album you had never heard of, an album you would have never guessed the host would own, one of your favorite albums which might serve to spark a conversation later on. Looking through someone's record collection allowed you to get to know that person in almost an instant.

When my dad finally decided to get rid of the records he had been storing for three-plus decades, he let me look through them and keep whatever I wanted. Of the 300 or so albums he had, I kept about a third, mostly albums he had bought in high school and college (Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, etc.). Though I rarely listen to these records, they have sparked many a conversation with my dad that eventually veer off into discussions of history, culture, politics, etc. But more than that, these records, which I've moved to three different apartments in the past five years, give me a connection to my dad for which I cannot think of an analog. They are in many ways a physical representation of himself, sitting in my living room, always there. I can call him anytime, but the records give him a presence in my life that a cell phone simply cannot.

A music collection in the 20th century       
Of course, such a paradigm is largely a thing of the past. The people who buy new music on vinyl are an infinitesimal minority. And the replacement for this technology, digital music, is not physical at all. You could store your entire music collection on a hard drive on your desk. And forget about displaying your music. No one looks through someone else's iTunes library, and even if they did, it's not nearly as fun as thumbing through a record rack. Digital music is much easier to acquire, share, and transport than CDs or records, but these advantages are gained at the expense of our physical relationship with the music we own. Music is no longer a thing we can hold, nor is it something we can literally point to as an identifier of the self. This is not necessarily bad or worse, since the tradeoff has its advantages (especially when it comes to portability). But it does leave us with one less easy signifier of identity, which is not easy to replace.

So instead of showing people my record collection, I write this here blog. It's a bit more work, and it does not even begin to capture the entirety of my taste as well as a record collection could. But it's a start.

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