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Hey! Turn the record over

Published: April 5, 2012
Section: Opinions


The first time I heard Mick Jagger, it was on vinyl. Through some very impertinent cabinet-opening, I had discovered the family record collection, which spanned from my grandfathers old 45s from the 1930s to Donna Reed and the Clash. I demanded that my parent play one for me. It was enthralling to watch, the way the record slipped out of the jacket, which was in itself a work of art: sharp, square and beautiful. I remember turning it over in my hands, careful not to touch its face, before setting it with over-zealous caution onto the player. As the needle touched it, the black disc crackled softly into life. It whirled softly along, crooning. The needle bounced slightly as it dragged its way along the track. I could not see it ever move in, toward the center, but if I looked away and back again, it would have jumped nearer to the end.

It was then I knew I had something special. A physical object that was connected to music, that was played in a very physical way. It was all very deliberate. The track list is set; there is no Shuffle button. The artist, or the producer, decides in which order songs are to be played, and the decision is made with great thought and consideration. It has two sides and requires active listening because after 15 or 20 minutes, you have to get up and turn it over, or put something new on instead. While the interminable drone of a radio or your iTunes is momentarily appropriate, the experience lacks something special.

When you listen to iTunes, you’re disconnected from the music. It’s completely a passive experience, and when you do take control as the listener, you control too much. You have the ability to pick in which order things are played very easily, whether to arbitrarily fade in and out songs, how many seconds of silence are in between them. You lose the experience of listening to an entire album, from beginning to end, with the intended pauses and the sequence.

At one point in time, things like sequence mattered. Listening to music, music that you love and know by heart, creates a connection with those who made it, even if they are dead or unbelievably vain. It is the same connection one feels now, when you read a very fine book for the first time, and you realize that the author has felt the same as you, maybe decades past, and these feelings elicited the same anxieties. You wouldn’t read the chapters of a novel out of order, it would be disrespectful. The same applies to music.

And music has lost that. It’s lost its deliberation; it has become something played to color in silence. And that is extremely sad.

There are limitations to the vinyl record. They are not very portable. The records themselves don’t fit on a normal bookshelf and the players are just a little bit massive. They are fragile. They warp in the heat. They shatter easily. But they still have worth. Not only are they a more involved way of listening to vinyl, used ones have been listened to by others; people you have never met have experienced the same songs you listen to now, maybe years and years before. They are artifacts. One day, hopefully, someone else will own them, and know that someone before them listened to those same songs.

I’ve never stopped listening to vinyl. Its recent gains in popularity have created a higher demand and now new artists are printing LPs. I’m glad, even if it does drive the prices up—one of my secret, less whimsical reasons for adoring outmoded technology is that it is, or at least was, ineffably cheap. Elvis Costello’s Blood and Chocolate cost $12 on CD, and about $10 for an mp3 download. On vinyl it was only $3.