One time I was asked how it was possible to listen to a rectangle. But it was a subtle way for a technologically illiterate baby-boomer to pry into my life, and then feel compelled to tell me his “back in my day” story about vinyl records. Like most old people, he pretended like I was not aware that music existed before compact discs and MP3 players, and gave me a brief history of the phonograph record. “To listen to music we had to drop a needle on these fragile, black discs,” he said. “Try to wrap your mind around that.” Once he believed that I understood the concept of a needle and a groove, he listed the groovy records he once owned: Rubber Soul, Tower of Power, Tapestry, My Favorite Things–the list seemed never ending.
What was more important, however, was the role vinyl played in his life. Every album had a story. Sociologist and musicologist Theodor Adorno had a peculiar way of explaining this role, and claimed in his essay, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” that “records are possessed like photographs,” and become “herbaria of artificial life that are present in the smallest space and ready to conjure up every recollection that would otherwise be mercilessly shredded between the haste and hum-drum of private life.”
I would agree with Adorno’s statement. The old man told me of the time he first heard the White Album. He said his father overheard him listening and they got into an argument over long hair. Then he explained what it was like ripping the plastic from a new album: the cardboard cover was firm and glossy, the paper sleeve was crisp and white, and he was always reluctant to play the record because the virgin black vinyl was always spotless; no dust, no scratches. There was something else about an album that he didn’t feel admirable about later in life. “My friends and I used to roll our marijuana joints on the album covers,” he said. “But everybody did that then.”
It became clear to me then that a record was not just, as Adorno would say, an “acoustic photograph.” Although records are material possessions that have the power to conjure up recollections from our boring lives, they also add a new dimension to the listening experience. Along with music, there’s the visual feature of the album art, and the literary aspect of the liner notes–a complete artistic package. A record in its complete physical form can produce more than just a memory; it brings aesthetic pleasure.
When I look down now at that rectangular device that contains all of my music, I wonder of its significance in my life, and Adorno’s thoughts are possibly more meaningful in our time. How meaningful is the listening experience when music is merely an mp3 file on a hard-drive, that we then transfer to an iPod, and then attach to our arms before we run on a treadmill? Music is influential as it is, but as a possession I believe it is necessary to own a physical copy of an album, even in CD format, or else songs on an iPod may only become “acoustic photographs.”
Recently, however, recording artists have been releasing vinyl copies of their albums along with a free, one time only, mp3 download of the album. This is a good idea because one can buy the complete, aesthetic package of an album, and then do as they wish with the mp3’s. Perhaps iTunes could one day add an option to receive a vinyl copy in the mail with every full album purchase, rather than a digital album booklet.
Until then, enjoy this: