Finding meaning in music again
Records, CDs, cassettes: Kelly McQuillan's home is having an analog renaissance – and there should be one in yours, too
First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Lately I've noticed some videos making their way through the social-media feeds, featuring kids confronted with late 20th-century technology – specifically, music technology. It's a good laugh as they try to plug headphones directly into cassettes or stare helplessly at a Discman, searching for the touch screen.
The humour also promotes reflection. I think back to when I grew up, which was long enough ago to have placed my adolescence at the confluence of the analog and digital eras. When I graduated from high school, the internet was in its infancy and vinyl, cassettes and compact discs were our sources of recorded music. For me and many (if not most) of my friends, music permeated our teenage experience and much of our time was spent acquiring, listening to and discussing it. It meant everything to me. Now, years down the line, well into the Digital Age, I can't help but wonder if modern technology, for all of its benefits and convenience, might be robbing us of a certain depth of experience and connection with music and other arts.
My 1990s listening adventures usually started with a trip downtown to a couple of favourite record stores. My friends and I spent delightful afternoons browsing, feeling the rush of excitement as we flipped through the plastic cases to reveal an as-yet-unheard of (to us) album by a favourite artist. Our piecemeal research was done via magazine articles and what we picked up on MuchMusic. Discovering a new album felt as if our world had just expanded. Sometimes, we would have the opportunity to preview parts of albums at listening stations, if the obligatory long-haired dude in the tie-dye shirt relinquished it for a few minutes. Because we purchased entire albums, not individual songs, we had to whittle our desires down to an affordable selection before we reached the till and forked over our hard-earned babysitting/part-time job cash. We rode the bus home, clutching our treasures, often sneaking a peek at the liner notes on the way.
One of my favourite things to do was to pry one of those CDs out of its pristine jewel case and place the shiny new disc in the player. I listened to the album start to finish, my ears bathing in the sound as my eyes devoured the liner notes, cover to cover: lyrics straight from the songwriter's pen (not the oft-poorly transcribed ones you find online now), the names of writers, performers, audio engineers, producers, when/where the album was recorded, and the gratitudes. This knowledge both informed and enriched my experience of the music.
In contrast, let's fast-forward to my typical music consumption. I recently purchased, downloaded and listened to a new album by one of my favourite singer-songwriters. I was able to do this while standing at the bathroom sink getting ready in the morning. So easy, so instantaneous and I really liked what I heard. But I haven't listened to it since. It has been consumed and shuffled into hundreds of other music files on my phone. If I had purchased the CD, or vinyl, I would have made time to sit down, listen to the songs in order (I realized later that my iPhone was on "shuffle") and read the lyrics along with them. I would have read each and every liner note to help me fully appreciate the context and creation of the work of art that filled my ears.
Does the method by which we experience media affect our engagement with and appreciation of it? This musing grumbles in the background of my mind, leading to a bigger question: Because downloadable, digital music is now ubiquitous, is anyone else out there beginning to feel as though their everyday experience of music is ringing a little hollow? Does the new medium devalue the art form? Songwriters and artists who receive fractions of pennies from streaming services might agree with that.
Music and other arts have always been an enormous source of meaning, comfort and inspiration in my life. I want to ensure that my son understands that this wealth is available for him as well. But connection is a two-way street. Music, art, poetry – they all come from somewhere, nurtured into being by inspiration and hard work. Doing a little work on our end helps us to experience art in a deeper, more meaningful way. A song is so much more than an instantly playable cover image on a screen.
Somewhere in the busyness of everyday life, I had succumbed to the temptation of easy listening (in the most literal sense) too many times. My experience of recorded music had become flat as an Mp3, guided by whim and convenience and lacking in meaning. This is the opposite of what I want for myself and my son.
Fortunately, all is not lost. We were given a turntable and my husband began to play records on weekend mornings and it's now a much-loved family ritual. I was inspired to dig out my old CD collection and started listening to them again, reconnecting with some meaningful favourites. We recently moved and our vinyl, CDs and cassettes made the move with us. The space it takes up is worth it. Our son is only 2, but he knows how the turntable and CD player work and he delights in rummaging through the plastic cases and cardboard sleeves, chubby little fingers seeking the familiar covers that he has already made positive connections with. We haven't completely shunned digital music, but we've become more intentional about our listening and more receptive to the experience.
As the digital world becomes increasingly saturated with media, I am concerned that arts such as music are losing their perceived value during a time when it could be argued that we need them the most. Our data-driven, fast-paced lives benefit so much when we take an occasional intentional step back out of the flow.
There is hope. Audio-visual stores are beginning to stock vinyl and I recently overheard teenagers talking about how they want a record player – a record player!– for Christmas.
Kelly McQuillan lives in Comox, B.C.