So, my husband and I just moved from North Carolina to Georgia. In fact, that’s why I didn’t update the site last week; I was up to my eyeballs in boxes. Truth be told, I still am, but it’s getting better.
One of the debates we’ve been having as we set up our new home is what to do with our CD rack. See, I’ve always seen my music collection as a point of pride – something to show off to guests. Likewise, when I visit the home of a friend, I often find myself fascinated by what music populates their collections. I’ve always felt that you can learn a lot about someone based on what music they choose to own. But the visual aspect of that window into someone’s personality is changing, and hubby seems more comfortable with that than I guess I am.
Yesterday was the first day of my first semester at the University of West Georgia, and my first class of the day was a 96-seat Survey and Jazz, Rock, and Pop. We were talking about the kinds of music my students enjoy, and I was thrilled to see so much diversity of styles among the students. Not only do they like lots of different things, few of them seem content to limit themselves to one or two musical styles. So, as this discussion went on, I started talking about this debate hubby and I are having at home, and I asked the class if they can relate to my position. Several people said yes. So then I asked, “But how do you share your musical collections?” The dominant answer was “On my phone.” Then I asked, “How many of you purchase music in a tangible, physical format?” Roughly 30 hands shot up. Knowing how many of these students were freshmen, I then asked, “So, how many moved CDs into your dorms?” The answer was 3. Just 3.
I have to admit, I was kind of surprised, but there are a number of possibilities at work here. A handful of my new students were rocking that distinctively hipster look, so perhaps when I asked if they purchased physical copies of music, they were thinking about LPs. So when I asked about CDs, they blew my question off with a shrug. Of course for new freshmen, being able to store one’s entire music collection on a small portable object is certainly a valuable option when moving and cramming possessions into a tiny dorm room, so opting to leave the CDs at home may have simply been a question of logistics and space-saving. And, naturally, there may also be a number of students who still live at home or in off-campus housing. If you don't live in a dorm, the question simply doesn’t apply.
But let’s just assume for a moment that only about 3% of my students value their physical copies of music enough to bring them along when they leave for college. What does that say about their perception of the musical object? Does music need a physical presence to be truly owned? How does the act of holding a CD or other music medium in your hands impact the experience of music? Does one need cover art and liner notes in order to fully appreciate musical sound?
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. In many ways, music has maintained a distance from the visual for a long time- at least during the period between the invention of recorded sound and the birth of music videos. But then, one could argue that the visually stunning album art of the late 1960s added a visual dimension to the listening experience. We might even consider the films of Elvis Presley from the 1950s as a tool to align aural and visual stimuli. So perhaps removing the images the accompanying popular music is a way of returning it to its roots from the 1910s to the 1950s and providing listeners with a purer musical experience that isn’t complicated by visual elements. While I suppose I should see this is a move toward more critical listening and rejoice in the shift, I know better.
I think where my unease with society’s move away from tangible musical objects might be summed up in this quote from W.H. Auden: “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” Music without a physical remnant is far more likely to be lost to the ocean tides of popular consciousness. The song that is “one’s jam” one summer can easily be forgotten by the next, especially without a physical reminder of its existence sitting on a shelf.
One might question whether modern music warrants being preserved for historical reference. Is some music made to be disposable, and does the digital download encourage that mentality? How does that translate to music with more creditability? Works that haven’t disappeared over time? Is something lost when we listen to, say Dark Side of the Moon, from a digital download, or does the listener need the paraphernalia to fully appreciate the work?
In the interest of reuniting people with the tangible, concrete nature of musical media, rather than recommending a specific album, I would suggest that you revisit something you own on LP, cassette, 8-track, CD, whatever, something physical that you can hold in your hands. Look at the art work, read the lyric sheet printed inside. Does having that object alter how you experience the music? Do you find yourself having a more cohesive aesthetic experience when you hear the music with the images and words put together?
Richard Wagner sought to create in his operas what he called the “Gesamtkunstwerk” (complete work of art) by combining the musical with the dramatic and the visual. Does listening to an album with all of its accouterments make the process more “gesamt”?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.