The vinyl age
Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 21, 2014.
For Christmas, I got a record player, the first one I’ve owned for many years. My setup isn’t going to impress any audiophiles—my only real request was for a portable turntable that I could plug in and play without worrying about wires or external speakers—but it’s exactly what I needed. I wanted it, first of all, because I live just up the street from an independent record store that I’d only visited a couple of times in the last two years, and I wanted an excuse to browse there. There’s also a trove of enticing records at the thrift store a block away, and along with the selections from the Osmonds, Andy Williams, and Mitch Miller, you’ll often find an unexpected treasure for a dollar. My first purchase there was Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was only fitting, since it was the sight of those three little brothers in their pajamas, seated on the floor with their record player in Moonrise Kingdom, that reminded me of the basic pleasure that vinyl affords. And although my record collection is still pretty sparse, I expect it to expand considerably soon, at least if my habits with used books are any indication.
Vinyl itself is a fascinating medium. I’m well aware that arguments for one format over another are highly subjective, and few listeners can tell the difference with their ears alone. (The “warmth” over which wax enthusiasts enthuse may be real, but it might also be due to the inherent limitations of vinyl for rendering bass.) Still, there’s no denying the emotional, tactile appeal of the rituals involved: sliding the record out of the sleeve, setting it on the turntable, removing the dust, gently dropping the needle into place. At a time when the process of listening to music has become increasingly abstracted, along with nearly all the other forms of media we consume, there’s something satisfying about an encounter that brings you that much closer to the mechanics of recording and playback. It isn’t quite like the case for reading physical books, which have enormous advantages for serious readers that have nothing to do with nostalgia. But if we’re willing to concede that these objects have value in themselves—and that the physical look, feel, and aroma of these interactions are meaningful—then it’s hard to imagine a better way of listening to music.
And I’m also thinking about my own daughter. I’ve written before about the value of physical books from a parent’s perspective, since a bookshelf with the spines all arranged at the level of a child’s eye is a much greater invitation to browsing and discovery than the sterile slab of a Kindle. You can make much the same argument for music and movies: I spent endless hours exploring my dad’s CD, video, and record collection, which shaped my tastes enormously, even if it put me slightly out of step with my friends. (It’s safe to say that I was the only kid at my middle school who was obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys, and although it caused me a few headaches at the time, I’d like to think that I got the last laugh.) Beatrix is already curious about the record player, perhaps because the logic of its workings is so transparent. You put the record on here, the sound comes out there—and the records themselves, of course, are enticing art objects in themselves. I’m still looking for a place to keep them all, but it’s safe to say that wherever they end up, they’ll be somewhere near the ground, in a spot where they’re likely to catch a little girl’s eye.
That said, none of this would make any difference if I didn’t benefit from it myself, and if it didn’t express something fundamental about who I am. I don’t have much in the way of advice for other parents—if there’s one thing that being a father has taught me, it’s that parenting is about doing whatever works, as long as it’s within a loving family—but if I’ve come to believe in one principle, it’s that values, especially artistic ones, need to be visible. I’m used to living in my own head, but my daughter is still gathering the materials of her own inner life, and it helps if the raw ingredients are readily at hand. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to transform myself into something I’m not, just for the sake of providing her with what I think will be a good role model; but it does mean externalizing the things I care about and find worthwhile about myself in a form that she can find on her own. That record player, like the ukulele, is an attractive toy, but it’s also a tangible extension, right into the living room, of art and ideals that might otherwise be locked up between my ears or in a hard drive that she won’t be able to explore. These books, movies, and music are a part of me, and by keeping their fragile, anachronistic shells within easy reach, I’m hoping that they’ll become a part of her, too.