I bought my first CD in high school, Christmas of ’86 or ’87. It was Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration. I picked it up at Tower Records, a twenty-minute drive from home, after receiving a CD player earlier that morning. A few years later I sold it back to a used record shop, fearing my fragile Christian faith would be overthrown by Marley’s Rastafarianism. I now regret selling it back, but I regret more the initial purchase—Catch a Fire is by far the better album. I wish I had it.
Over the years, I collected hundreds of CDs, and last year when I moved out of the house I’d lived in for twelve years, I schlepped them with me to the new place. Most sit on shelves in a room behind the garage, unorganized and neglected. I don’t listen to most of them, ever.
In the ‘90s, I reviewed CDs for a San Diego alt-weekly magazine. I remember trashing an album by Letters to Cleo. The music was pleasant enough, perhaps a little slick and plain, which I took as an affront. After I saw the review in print, I felt terrible. A bunch of people—songwriters, musicians, engineers, cover artists, manufacturers—worked hard to make that record come into existence. One of these people said to another, “Hey, try this,” and they did, out of a belief that “this” made the product better. There was hope in all their labor, that perhaps old and new fans would soon pay for its fruits and enjoy them. Who was I to glibly knock the efforts of people I’d never met and who owed me nothing? I stopped reviewing music.
On my shelves is the evidence of efforts of hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar people who worked to make something I’d use to soundtrack the commutes and chores and occasional cookouts comprising my life. As the physical artifact has given way to (seemingly) weightless code, I’ve thought a lot about what a CD (or an LP, or a cassette) is. The gatefold picture accompanying Queen’s Jazz album shows a panorama of the resplendent studio where the band presumably recorded. Is the thing you hold in your hand the equivalent of that picture—Roger Taylor’s twenty-piece drum set, Brian May’s rigs and guitars, the grand piano Freddy Mercury has seductively draped himself over? Is the disk all that airy space above them, allowing the notes of his voice to resonate and attach to strips of magnetic tape? Is owning the physical artifact quantitatively or qualitatively different from streaming it? Do we own music when we stream it? Did we ever? Perhaps like land, perhaps like love, it’s foolish to “own” anything that people work at and say about, “These are my beloved songs: Listen to them.”
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” That’s Walter Benjamin, talking about visual art, but it might be applied to the reproductions of music we collect. Fairuza Balk’s groupie, in Almost Famous, says that to be a true fan is “To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” In her case, that means following the band around and hearing them live. That whole jam’s not reproducible in plastic or vinyl or even, so far, VR.
So what is that pile of CDs in the room behind the garage? Music, sure, as a reflection or shadow of it. It’s also a bunch of markers about my taste, my attempts to display my taste to others, and what I was like at 19, 25, and 37. It’s a series of attempts at being surprised, at believing that buying something and playing it and enjoying it will make my life somehow better. It is, finally, a dreary lesson in capitalism.
Over at the A.V. Club, Josh Modell is going through his CD collection, alphabetically, to critically assess whether its worth keeping or purging certain artists’ work. The focus of this series will be different. “My CD Collection” will be me trying to reckon with the personal history wrapped up in that pile of CDs, along with a critical engagement with its music, its packaging, and the notion that to judge something—like, say, a record by a female-fronted power pop band named after a childhood pen pal—is to step into it. What “it” is is partly what this project is about.
Even though most music now comes to me via the Internet, I’m apparently not done buying CDs. I passed through my college town last week and couldn’t help but stop at the local independent record store. There I saw Mitski’s Puberty 2 displayed above the rack of CD’s labeled “M.” I’d already heard it three times on NPR’s First Listen weeks before, and I vowed to download it when I had a free minute. But here it was, shrink-wrapped and fairly priced ($13.99), and I walked out a little lighter in the wallet. I don’t regret it. It’s fantastic.
[Next week: Is This It, by The Strokes]