A few days ago, in an attempt to recapture some of the deeper pleasure I used to take in listening to music, I hooked up my turntable, which had been sitting in a closet on top of a milk crate holding the few remaining records I didn’t give away when I moved two years ago.
When I finally got the cables straightened out and dropped the needle on a record (The Other Woman by Ray Price), the first thing I noticed—something that I had totally forgotten about playing records—is that each time you play one, it sounds a little different. There are many contingencies: static, dust, the needle’s fidelity, the speed at which the turntable revolves. Records get worn out, obviously; they develop skips and so on. Some of the skips on records I had as a kid are burned into my mind, so that when I hear “Born to Run” on the radio, I still brace myself for a skid across the “wha-uh-uh-ohohoh” part at the end that never comes. I have this unique (albeit mostly useless) relation to that song because of the specific damaged record I owned. (Who knows? Maybe people will come to sentimentalize imperfections in the compression of their audio files. I tend to delete them instead.)
It’s silly to sentimentalize skips in records, but they alert me to the fragility of the entire musical encounter, they hint at the miracle of performance that we typically take for granted. It figures music as something rare, something requiring care and preservation, something that is still sanctified despite its commercialization. It seems that digitization has destroyed once and for all that palpable sense of sacredness in music. Music still has its functionality, but it seems less autonomous from the culture industry—because of its materiality, analog has built-in friction to hypermediatization, to infinite copies and regressive recursivity and the production endless simulacra of simulacra. With analog, the signal degrades, and in that there seems to be a sort of salvation these days.
I am attracted to the possibility of negating aspects of music consumption that in recent years have made it more “convenient.” I’m strangely hoping to make listening to music purposely inconvenient. Instead of delighting in being able to take my whole music collection anywhere on a MP3 player, I’m returning to the quaint idea that I have to go to a particular place to indulge in my music, a de facto listening booth. When I go into the room with the turntable and put a record on, I’m specifically interested in hearing music, not making a soundtrack for my life. Instead of being a pretend DJ for my own household radio station, I put on an album side, from the very limited selection available to me, and listen to every song the producers decided to put on there, for better or worse. No skipping songs impatiently, no opening an audio editor to delete boring parts, no metadata editing and star ranking and image file curating. The music just plays.
If I grow tired of the few records I have, I can’t just go to an MP3 blog online and get some new ones. Instead I’d have to go to a thrift store in the neighborhood and pray that something worthwhile will be buried in there. In my mind is a vague wish list of records it would be nice to discover, many of which I used to own but of course got rid of in the excitement over digital convenience. It’s hard to explain why, but these seem like records that make more sense as vinyl artifacts: Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. And Hard Nose the Highway by Van Morrison. Bob Dylan’s Street-Legal (even though the mastering is horrible).
It’s a pure nostalgia move, I know, trying to re-create the listening conditions of my 11-year-old self, and it seems like a counterproductive road to be on, one that leads to becoming a prisoner of history. What am I going to do, only listen to music from the LP era for the rest of my life, or become one of those extreme audiophiles who spends $40 on limited-run vinyl pressings of new material? Of course I’m still going to listen to music through my computer, but I’m hoping to rekindle the memory of an alternative—as if going analog is some form of cultural resistance, a faint form of negative dialectics. At a time when we can access as much music as we want pretty much anywhere we want, I’m trying to restore a sense of limits to my listening, develop a relationship to songs again as mediated by the physical object of the album. Does this make the medium the message to a degree that the specific content of the records is obviated? That, I guess, is what I am going to find out.
UPDATE: This FT article (via PSFK) details Apple’s rumored efforts to rekindle the fetishization of albums. It’s like Apple and its minions are one step ahead, preemptively co-opting any efforts to create a sphere of culture immune to its influence. My fantasy is about detechnologizing my relation to music. Apple apparently is trying to leave no escape routes, not even into the past.