Ah, the nostalgic 'swoosh' of the LP spinning on the record player, pieces of dust catching in the needle's head; the rich and imperfect timbre, cozy crackle sounds permeating moments of pause.
How curious that in this day and age of digital sound recording, we are witnessing plummeting CD sales, while the more antiquated medium of analog sound recording and listening is gaining in popularity, as seen through the sale of records and phonographs.
True, there are many who revel in the accuracy of digital sound, yet the tide is turning. A growing number of listeners describe it, ironically, as “too perfect.”
Interestingly enough, digital sound is actually an approximation of the truth, made up of snapshots of the original analog sound, connected by gaps filled with computer-generated connective tissue; a connect-the-dots reality where a sudden burst of a trumpet may be distorted because it changes too quickly to be caught accurately by the snapshot.
Though many explanations of recent consumer trends abound, perhaps, if we listen closely, we can discern echoes of our society's subconscious yearnings reflected in them.
I recall many years ago when my job in the Middle School play found me perched on the floor, in dim light, behind curtain right, waiting for the exact moment in which I would “drop the needle” in that no-man's land groove that lay between the musical pieces on our LP. I'd practiced getting it just right – in timing and location. After all, dropping the needle a millimeter to the left would have our audience catching the end of the previous piece, a millimeter to the right would rob our audience of a crisp beginning.
As much as I practiced my part, I trudged forward never feeling confident that I would succeed. I was dealing with hair-breadths of space on a black vinyl mass, whose needle wound around its surface in a spiral motion, heading toward its epicenter in slowly diminishing circles as the music played on. Unbeknownst to me, those circular grooves mirrored the waveform of the original analog sound, producing a depth and richness of tone, accurate in its imperfection.
Cassettes eventually followed, miles of two-sided magnetic tape winding around rotating spools. Cassettes, robust and reusable, were originally designed for dictation, and over time became a popular medium for music listening as well. But there was a hitch; music was audible from Side A of the cassette, only to hear it come to a sudden halt, at which time we'd flip over to Side B, and resume our auditory pleasure. It simply did not pay to fast forward to a favorite song, or rewind for a second hearing. For what were the chances of landing at exactly the desired spot? Notwithstanding, if we ever attempted this feat, we felt the frustration of the multiple maneuvers it took to find our desired song location on the seemingly endless spool of tape.
And so we most often listened to the cassette in order, all of Side A, flip and click into place, all of Side B. Sure we had our favorite songs, those that grabbed us upon our initial hearing, but in listening to them all (an act born of necessity), a curious thing happened; the songs that hadn't struck our fancy initially, were given a chance to grow on us. After repeated listenings, new favorites may have overtaken the old on our personal racetrack. In a funny way, the experience of democratic listening – equal rights for all songs – helped us develop a level of tolerance we may not have otherwise attained. The underlying message became clear; when given a chance, any song may become a favorite.
Fast forward to the advent of CDs and digital sound. CDs enable us to be more discerning as to how to spend our listening time. With the push of a button, we are able to skip to the next track, the moment even the interlude of the present track pleases us less.
We limit our exposure to the world of sound and knowledge.
With the arrival of iPods, we are suddenly so in charge of our listening experience, that we surround ourselves only with those pieces that are "10"s to our ears, that were "10"s the moment we first heard them! We cultivate an entitlement to not have our time usurped by anything less. We may only be exposed to the highest-scoring sections of the highest-scoring songs, among the elite pool of those that we loved upon first hearing. What a limited exposure to the world of sound, and by extension to the world of knowledge and of people.
And so we must understand that our children are experiencing a world in which if one is not instantaneously enamored by something, toss it in the garbage heap; a world in which “My Favorite Things” is a far cry from the wholesome mood picker-uppers lovingly enumerated by Maria in The Sound Of Music; a world in which CD sales are plummeting because not every single track they feature is a "10"; a world in which many worthy areas of knowledge are not embraced because they would require an adjustment period which is not granted; a world in which the newcomer to our schools or workplace has but a fleeting opportunity to “break in” or remain a stranger; and yes, a world in which a prospective mate is nixed before being given a chance because not every facet of his or her being scores a perfect "10".
Has our tolerance threshold regressed to a point where only utter perfection is acceptable? Or is that perceived utter perfection actually pseudo-perfection, as we have discovered in the inherently flawed digital sound?
I recently attended a concert full of artistry, unity and joy. Seated nearby, was a trio of teenage girls noisily regaling to the point that those around them could not hear the performance they had come to experience. I wondered why the girls had come, if not to catch even a glimpse of the beautifully prepared smorgasbord of creative expression. And then I took a closer look. The girls were crowded around a camera. They were enjoying the performance, that is a scene from Act One they had filmed a short while before! That was their "10," and so nothing else, by comparison was worth their time or attention.
We have coasted along with our “favorites” value system for too long. Why should we be surprised at our youth's choices and behaviors?
Perhaps it's time to take our cue from resurgent LP sales, and dust off our phonographs to recoup that feeling of not being in charge. Perhaps it's time to reacquaint ourselves with our collections of cassette tapes in the hopes of developing greater tolerance. Let us call a strike on digital pseudo-perfection, embrace the humanistic analog mirroring of reality!
I think I'll go listen to a whole CD – from start to finish!