Music in the Digital Age; or Why My Walkman Was Better than Your iPod!

45-record-adapterMy little son was working on some Lego creation the other day, singing softly a song that sounded vaguely familiar.  I asked him what he was singing and he said he didn’t know, but he sang a little louder so I could hear the words.  It was the oddest thing to hear that song coming from his seven-year-old mouth.  It wasn’t an inappropriate song.  It was just one that I would have never thought to hear him sing.  Somehow from the background of the movie Cars 2, my son had picked out the melody and lyrics to “You Might Think I’m Crazy” from the Cars, circa 1984.  When I started singing along with him, his face looked even more incredulous than mine.

He asked how I knew the song and I told him it was a song from my youth.  We were able to find the song on iTunes and downloaded it for fun.  I was tempted to buy the entire “Cars Greatest Hits” album, but figured I had better things to spend my time and money on.  I’ve never been a music collector, even back in the days when collecting music actually meant collecting something tangible. I still have a small box of 45s in the closet somewhere.  

I remember the days of vinyl with great fondness.   When I was a teenager, vinyl was in the process of being replaced by cassettes.  Cassettes were smaller and more portable.  You could play them in a car or on a Walkman, which liberated an entire generation of teens from enslavement to the FM radio.  Most importantly, you could make your own cassettes from your vinyl records, allowing you to tailor your own “mix tape” for yourself, your friends, and most importantly, that someone special.

The tangible aspect of music in those days – vinyl, tapes, and even CDs as the early 90’s dawned – provided a sense of identity and community.  You could tell what type of person you were meeting by which corner of the record store they shopped in.  Each corner had its own slang, its own haircut, its own dress code.  For some reason, my corner was usually devoid of girls while the heavy-metal section seemed to have a surplus.

Music was also a way to connect with people.  It was quite customary to invite people (usually the opposite sex) over to look through your music collection.  You could spend time playing amateur DJ to introduce your date to new music, which served as a sort of commodity of coolness due to the relative scarcity of the record.  After all, somebody actually had to make a trip to the record store to buy the thing and bring it home.  And really popular albums might be sold out for weeks.  Loaning a record or tape was a great way to make a friend.  And of course, the loan implied that it would have to be returned.  It was an invitation for a second meeting.

The box of 45s I have upstairs reminds me of those days.  It also reminds me of pizza slices, roller skates, video arcades, and VHS tapes.  Things change, and usually for the better, but sometimes our natural evolution towards efficiency removes the charm and value of inefficient things.  Email and texts are not as romantic as letters.   Online games are wonderful, but no replacement for the human interaction of board games.  Instant access to information is amazing, but I wonder if the creativity of solitude has been lost to future generations.  Would Paul Revere be such a compelling story if he had sent a Facebook update? Would the love letters of Browning (How do I Love Three?) be as romantic if they were sent via text message?  Can you Skype from Walden Pond?

Downloading the song for my son was quick and easy, but it felt sterile and disposable.  There is something cold and impersonal about digital bits of binary code, gathered and deleted on demand. To the contrary, I have a box of 45s in a closet because they meant something to me at one time.  I saved them so I could share them with my kids one day.  My son in particular will think the 45 adapter (for those who know what I’m talking about) is some sort of ninja throwing star.  We’ll go through all the records I thought were cool once; the records I saved up for, rode my bike across town to purchase, shared with friends, and displayed on the walls of my childhood room.  They won’t be deleted, because they can’t be.

After all these years of collecting dust in a closet, my old records will do again what they always did best.  They’ll bring people together during a hot summer day, to laugh, to listen, and to get to know each other a little better.  And maybe there is something to be said for life moving at a little slower pace.

That would 33 and 1/3 rpm for those of us in the know.

2 responses to “Music in the Digital Age; or Why My Walkman Was Better than Your iPod!”

  1. You are so right! There is so much to be said for listening to music WITH others instead of all alone with those stupid ear buds. I see students who have them in constantly, even when they are talking to me, and you can only imagine what that makes me want to do. It makes me what to get a big vinyl LP and………..well, you can probably figure it out!! Great post!

  2. I also lament the decision to stop publishing the Ornogah. I understand the rationale for the decision–students were not picking up their copy–but I still lament it. We have lost a tangible and condensed record of an academic year’s activities.

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