A matter of substance
It’s getting around to the time of the year when people–well, a few people anyway–ask me what I might like for my birthday. This never used to be a difficult question. I lusted after stuff. There were always at least a dozen albums on my gotta-have-that list, then there was the gear category, and the book category–two categories, actually–cheap guilty pleasures and expensive collector’s editions, and there was the art category–pottery, paintings, prints, photos…
But ask me these days and my mind kind of goes blank. Got nothin’. Have I achieved a state of enlightenment transcending material possessions? Unlikely. Am I trying to reduce my carbon footprint? A little maybe, but not by cutting back on greenhouse-gas emitting works of art. Instead, I think it’s the growing lack of substance in the former objects of my lust, and in the disappearance of the physical institutions that fed and informed my desires.
As an example, the paraphernalia of music used to be as important as the music itself. Bulky shelving to house the vinyl, cover art and poster art for the walls. There were extensive liner notes and a basket of music magazines to study. And the quality and size and power of your stereo components spoke volumes of your station in life. More space in the living room belonged to music than to overstuffed furniture.
An important part of having company or being company was the opportunity to browse another’s collection, to admire or scoff or discuss or recommend albums and bands and venues and songwriters and radio stations. There was bin-diving at the long-vanished neighborhood record store and those heartfelt discussions with the opinionated mavens behind the counter. There were obscure foreign releases and bootlegs.
And what do I have now? An iPod in my phone, earbuds and a few apps, a one-click purchase account at Amazon and iTunes. My phone is exactly the same as the one the lame guy who only listens to Nashville Top 40 has. I would never know that important bit of information about him because I use my earbuds and he uses his.
The music that was once part of the public persona is now privatized. The part that was actual and in-person is now relegated to social media. I rarely have a chance to show it off, I can’t lend my music to anyone, and there’s nowhere (in the physical world) to go for recommendation and discovery. It’s just me and an algorithm based on previous purchases. The entirety of the music apparatus in my life is now small enough to get lost in the couch cushions. It’s all gotten pretty insubstantial.
Hmm. I guess what I do know what I want for my birthday–a time machine.
Fortunately, I kept my favorite LPs (and CDs) and am turning them into I-Tunes files – still love vinyl and album covers. Actually, music publishing ended when music / books became nearly worthless commodities and artists / authors / publishing companies no longer owned their work (IPR). Alas, this is antiquated thinking, but when was the last time you were compelled to “buy” music downloads? p.s. Having lived through the Walkman age, portable buds are no a substitute for an audio system. Ever try listening to Beethoven on buds? Opps…Beathoven??? Witness, most NPR new music reviews are terrible. Instantly forgotten, much like broken I-Pods and blogs.
I think celebrating birthdays should stop at 16.
When I was a kid, birthdays were just for kids. I don’t remember there even being any birthday parties for any of the adults (parents included).
Same for me. In fact, this extreme example: my brother and I threw a 90th birthday party for our mother. Chatting with my mom during the event she said, “This is my first ever birthday party.” Wow. Mostly I was glad we had decided to do it.
I’m not getting a birthday party, either–not as far as I know, anyway. But in our family we do give gifts on birthdays. It’s just an excuse to do something nice. In a better world we might give gifts to one another all the time. But in this world, occasions like Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries at least keep us in the game.
Besides, when else would I get new clothes? Left to my own devices I’d be dressed in animal pelts with rags wrapped around my feet. Not much of a shopper, me.
Dale Hobson, NCPR