Lately I’ve been missing CDs. This may not be as hip as coveting vinyl (which I still sort of do), or as pleasurably ironic as returning to cassette tapes, but despite having connections both youthful and historic to those media, when all is said and done, CDs were my formative format and I miss them. Recently I’ve been thinking about my teenage and early 20something past for a variety of reasons, but it was something more specific that made me pull my dusty discs off their secluded shelf on the other side of my bed.
Records in My Apartment
Every few months (or sometimes years), I discover that one (or more) of my favorite bands have put out new records. (Not coincidentally, recently, this has often been on the occasion of anniversary, usually ten year anniversary, tours dedicated to debut or breakthrough albums.) These are the bands that meant the world, more than the world to me, once upon. They are bands whose shows were occasions not just for live music but for social gatherings that often felt like the life in the life and death everyday life of my late teenage years. These are bands whose new records can hardly replace and can rarely replicate the passion with which I hear older records, but I usually listen nonetheless. Indeed, when I hear about the new stuff, I usually do a few things. I like facebook pages and follow twitter accounts, migrating forms of music news. (I have often missed record release announcements for just this failure.) I check to see if the band is touring and if they’re coming to Chicago in the near future. And, of course, I go to iTunes and download the new material.
The other day, I was listening to Brand New’s second record, Deja Entendu. While thinking about how much I adore the album and what it meant to me in 2003 and 2004, I discovered that they’d released a new record in 2009 (which itself was around the time I discovered that I missed their third record, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me). This most recent recording is called Daisy. As I am wont to do, I liked their facebook page and downloaded the record from iTunes.
Brand New is a band whose career, if divided into halves by record release, incidentally lines up neatly with my own music consumption habits. While their first two records were pre-iPod/iTunes and were purchased on CD, while the latter two (both major label releases) I’ve only ever owned digitally. Though I don’t actually remember where I bought Your Favorite Weapon and Deja Entendu, they were probably purchased at a show, online, or locally at either Cutler’s in New Haven, CT or Best Buy in Orange (unfortunately when I was a teenager the big box chains were already often distributing a wider variety of ostensibly indie labels than the area independent record stores). It has occurred to me with some dismay that while in New Haven and later in Philadelphia I had record stores that I patronized religiously (Cutler’s, or sometimes Exile on Main Street in CT, and Repo in Philly), when I wanted new music or when a band came out with a new album, I have no place I go in Chicago, and I didn’t have a spot in Austin either. This is partly by virtue of iTunes and MP3s so easily replacing CDs and brick and mortar stores, and it is equally by virtue of moving too much and being too busy to invest the time, money and energy it takes to form a bond with a given record store and its local ethos. It is also (I think regrettably) a sign of how my passions have changed from following and spending money on music to… whatever it is I spend my time and money on now.
Cutler’s Records (formerly of New Haven, CT)
Yet, while the loss of independent record stores and the experience of buying albums is easily made nostalgic, particularly for the ways in which that loss highlights my own disconnection from the city around me and the scenes, bands and labels I’ve loved, it is equally the materiality of the object itself that I’ve been missing. What I miss about CDs is their malleability, the way they come apart into disc, liner notes and jewel case, each with their own importance, their own meaning. I miss purchasing an album, sitting in the car wrestling the plastic wrapping off and cracking the disc out of its case to put into my car stereo (or in my case, car discman) for the way home. I also miss the way I would take those CDs home, put them on and slide out the liner notes to absorb the record’s visual aesthetic, to follow the lyrics as the sound came through for the first time. I loved how I could dismantle a record on CD, highlighting its constituent parts, the disc that would find its way to the car, the liner notes that would stay safe at home holding the band’s place on a shelf. Though eventually I moved my CDs and their liner notes into books, the decision was a huge one for me, one I agonized with. The day I got rid of all those jewel cases was a genuinely tragic day for me. But at the same time, it is the second life of sound laid flat which reiterates the CD’s malleability. In any case, there was a ritual to the music and its material parts that is lost with MP3s and iTunes where everything is prearranged, digital booklets automatically linked to their digital tracks.
Brand New (though certainly not brand new) records
I still have those CDs and, just as importantly, I have those CDs arranged in the binders where I laid them to rest before I moved out of my apartment at 46th and Chester and put everything I owned into storage for (Jude Law and) a semester abroad. Now my CDs are a collection I hold onto consciously as an archive of who I was and who I have been: “Mabel Rosenheck, circa 2004.” And like VHS tapes of Superstar that are copies of copies of copies, or like ancient vinyl that comes with the pops and crackles of time, love and listening, my CDs have come to bear the physical marks of time. Scratches and skips, yes, but also wholesale loss and replacements burned and labeled with permanent marker in my 19 year old hand. I had to replace Deja Entendu and a hundred other discs when they were stolen out of my car two blocks away from the coffee shop in downtown New Haven where I worked while taking a leave from college and living back with my parents. I forgot the liner notes to Hot Water Music’s Caution when I brought them to a tattoo shop to get the Scott Sinclair swallows tattooed on me. I have two sets of liner notes for Rites of Spring but only one CD because I had to buy it again after it was stolen. In this case though, I was happy to buy the same record twice if it would support Dischord Records, one of the best labels in the business. On the other hand, I have two discs for Osker’s Idle Will Kill. I wore out the original and had to burn myself a new copy to listen to in the car. Browsing those pages, I didn’t even recognize Chuck Ragan’s Gold Country. Released in 2009, I apparently own the CD, but I’ve only ever listened to it digitally. There are CDs whose liner notes are present, but whose discs are missing. They might still be in my car, though the CD player hasn’t worked in years.
Front Seat of My Car, circa 2002 (shout out to the youth ahead sticker on my water bottle!)
This is just what I miss about CDs– flipping through books looking for what to listen to. I still know just about every album in these binders, though I haven’t looked at them or listened to the discs in ages. I don’t even own a CD player and haven’t in five or six years, yet the objects, carefully and lovingly purchased with meager salaries and hours leafing through bins of used music, passionately listened to and sung along with on hours and hours of highway driving to visit my best friends in Boston, New Jersey, Long Island and Philadelphia still echo in my ears, like those friends’ voices and the live voices of these bands we’d travel to see. In my iTunes library on the other hand, I have 6,495 items, 15.4 days of music, including a half dozen albums by the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver which I don’t think I have ever listened to. I meant to check out the new cool “indie” bands, but it turns out indie doesn’t quite mean what it meant to me when I was trying to be a teenage punk rocker. On iTunes it’s so easy enough to forget that bands exist or that you’ve acquired a given record that even while they exist side by side, my past and its memories end up overrunning the present. Familiarity ripped from old CDs us more listened to than illegally downloaded discographies I don’t know where to start with. Even when made seemingly equal in iTunes libraries, the remembered materiality (or the material memory) of CDs carries more weight for me than idly torrented tracks by the new what next.
The fascination with (and study of) media materiality isn’t something new. Adding to a pile of academic articles on media collecting, PBS Off Book just released a piece on retro media, focusing on vinyl, VHS, cassette tapes and film. CDs haven’t yet been fetishized the way these other obsolete forms have. Undoubtedly it’s only a matter of time before they find their way into this list, but it interests me that they haven’t yet, simply because they are so intimately tied into my experience of music, which is among my earliest processes of making meaning out of media. Is this not true for other people my age, other people for whom collecting media is such a passion, not to mention a marker of status and hipness? How are CDs and teenage CD collections like mine different from (or similar to) collections of more distantly past and especially analog forms of media?
For me, I think there are two equal, yet opposite, factors that may prove distinctive. On the one hand, my collection was not made as a collection. I was not a collector, collecting objects to complete a set or to create a library. I was buying music to support my favorite bands, scenes and labels. I was buying music I liked so I could listen to it again and again, wear it out, know all the words to shout at shows. I can’t quite articulate what’s different between me at that age and the contemporary collector. I think there’s a different approach to the objects, though I’m not entirely sure what those approaches are. I think there’s a way in which my music was living, sounds almost a part of me, not objects apart from me. The music and I lived in messy piles and single disc cases on the front seat of my car and at the foot of my bed. It was not neat, and was not organized. And now, while the collector’s collection continues to live and grow, my CD collection stands frozen in time. Aside from one or two, I have neither added to nor subtracted from this archive in five or six years, if not more. It’s not exactly that I’ve stopped listening to new music or picking up my favorite bands’ new stuff, though those acquisitions have slowed considerably. But these shifts in media consumption, both technological and personal, mean that what used to be my mobile soundtrack has now been sealed off, ceasing to live and becoming a more static archive defined solely by its definition of myself in context of technological change.