I was born the year after America’s bicentennial celebration. I grew up in the 1980s, but came of age in the 1990s. I recall watching “Remote Control” on MTV and also the first time I ever saw Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. I distinctly remember the first tape I ever received as a gift (R.E.M.’s “Green”) and the first CD my Dad gave me (Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark“).
In 7th grade, my parents gifted me a small boombox for Christmas. I’m sure they had to sacrifice to buy it. They didn’t even have one in their own bedroom. With it, I got Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” on cassette. I frequently took the boombox into the bathroom so I could look in the mirror and attempt to mimic the choreography Janet did in the “Miss You Much” video. On the weekends, I would listen intently to Casey Kasem announce the Top 40, “Next on the countdown, up two spots this week….” with my finger over the record button so I could attempt to capture a song I had been wanting to listen to over and over again. If I was lucky, the DJ wouldn’t talk over the beginning or ending of the song, and the recording would be clean.
Once we were in high school, my friends and I would hop in Nancy’s Chevette (not to be confused with a Corvette) and insert Tracy Chapman’s self-titled album into the cassette deck. We would sing at full volume as we drove the back roads of Ogden. We didn’t usually have a particular destination. Driving and listening to music was the objective.
In my early college days, I toted my CaseLogic cassette organizer to my car each morning and selected something that would sustain me on my drive to the university. If I didn’t like a particular song, it wasn’t easy to skip over it. I would have to fast forward, and it simply wasn’t worth the hassle. I learned to appreciate entire albums, because the alternative was to rewind or fast forward, and trying to stop in the exact spot where the next song began or ended was virtually impossible. My tape deck had a removable face so that no one would steal my car stereo. I remember thinking how futuristic and expensive it was. One of the first CD players I ever owned was a Sony Discman. It made trekking through the campus on the snowy, windy days of winter much more bearable. I would hike daily from the humanities building to the science building or the library, fueled by Radiohead or Beastie Boys. I always double checked that the “stop skip” functionality was set so that I wouldn’t scratch the CD if it jostled around too much in my backpack.
Shortly after I moved to Nevada at the age of 22, Napster came into being. My teenage sister sat at the computer for hours downloading songs. I couldn’t comprehend it. “This is all free?” I remember asking. “Yah! Isn’t it cool?” was her reply. It wasn’t too long before Metallica ruined her ability to download a lot of “free” music.
In 2004, I had a friend who lived in Dallas. We worked together and he was based at our company’s headquarters. We always discussed music. We liked the same bands. We often made playlists for each other. We could discuss albums and concerts for hours. “Have you heard of an iPod?” he asked during one of my visits. “No. What is that?” From his pocket, he procured a device the thickness of a notepad and the size of light switch. “Take a look,” he said as he handed it to me. I didn’t even know what to do with it. On the sleek surface, there were just a few buttons. It was the simplest thing I had ever seen. He turned it on and showed me how to scroll through his albums and artists. I’m certain my jaw hit the floor. It was by far the most awesome thing I had ever seen. I saved up to buy one, purchased an external hard drive to store all the music, and spent hours loading my CDs to iTunes so I could sync it with my iPod. Around the same time, I discovered how easy it was to purchase and download songs from iTunes. I bought a transmitter that attached to the top of my iPod and it would (sometimes) let me play music in the car if I could find a frequency. My entire music library in my car! Before long, I had the next generation of the iPod, and then an iPhone, and then Bluetooth capabilities. Increasingly simple.
Late last year, we signed up for a music streaming service. Recently, when I learned the Violent Femmes had a new album out, I searched for it and was able to listen to it immediately. Being able to do that, have music at my fingertips so readily, is something I find amazing, strange, sad, and unbelievable.
When I was younger, I always stored concert tickets for each show in the CD cases applicable to the particular tour. Last week, I went through all my CDs and removed the ticket stubs. I’m planning on getting rid of my CD collection. I have a heavy heart about it. There was something magical about browsing the racks at a music store, purchasing a cassette or CD, removing the cellophane, tearing off the damn sticker (not always an easy task), pouring through the pages of the jacket cover, and intently listening. It allowed me to melt away to somewhere removed from myself. There was a distinct and wonderful smell that came with the packaging. It makes me sad to think that my daughter and her friends won’t recall that smell and the experience. They don’t have the privilege of HAVING to listen to an entire album of music, because it’s so easy to find “the popular song” and listen to nothing else. In many ways, it’s too easy. My daughter will never know what it’s like to make a mixtape for a crush or her best friend; or be aware of all the thought and time that goes into such an effort. I’m grateful to have access to millions of songs and artists, but continue to lament for the element of discovery and appreciation that has been lost. There is much at our disposal, and too much is easily disposed.