Music today isn’t physical like it used to be. Gone are the days when every release demanded a walk down to the record store or even to Target for the newest Taylor Swift CD, gone are the collections that take up whole walls in living rooms or scatter themselves across the floor in precarious towers. No one is handing out mixtapes that you can turn over in your hand, a little thoughtful gift for a friend or a potential romantic interest. Instead, today’s music is becoming increasingly more abstract in the wake of streaming services and has been since the birth of software like iTunes and Napster.
Music is in the airwaves, online — everywhere. We have millions of songs at our fingertips, but they’re never quite tangible. This makes it hard to pass down the tunes that make us us to those who matter. You can send someone a Spotify playlist, but can they find it when they dig through their college mementos? Probably not. In this way, the songs that soundtrack our lives are much less tokens to be collected, and more ephemeral in nature than they’ve ever been before. Because of that, more and more people are returning to the physical in fear of losing that kinetic connection to music ― including me.
The summer before I came to college, the record player that I had bought on a whim during sophomore year finally reintegrated into my life. The needle was broken, sure, but finding the orange turntable and my family’s old TV speakers gave me a project for once that could potentially turn into something great. I hooked everything up in my room, (including a subwoofer, to my mother’s chagrin), and there it was ― a true old-fashioned record setup ready to play anything I wanted. The problem was, of course, that I had no actual records. The only obvious choice was to steal them from my father.
And so I ventured deep into the cluttered basement at his house, with the blessing that I could take anything that wasn’t either incredibly valuable or literally his own music that had been released in the ’80s. Don’t worry about those, I assured him, I could hear that for free when he practiced in our living room, sounding through the house with a deep baritone buzz. What I was really looking for was everything else; the music that had soundtracked my childhood, the James Taylors and Joni Mitchells and Tom Pettys of my past. In that basement, I found these and even more records that I could call mine, though they were technically his. And in that handover of the music we both shared, I discovered a very particular kind of nostalgia, hidden in the grooves of each well-played pressing.
I threw them all into a shopping bag and lugged the weight of 30 records to my mother’s house, where the newly-connected sound system waited. They looked nice on my shelf, a dingy rainbow of everything from Suzanne Vega to Talking Heads. He even had a pressing of Prince’s 1999, a funny connection to my birth year even when the album came out in 1982. I sunk into my bed and let the music ring out in the summer afternoon, laughing when I came upon a song that had been played so much it skipped. I realized that my father and I liked the same tunes 40 years apart, as “The Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon and “The Boho Dance” by Joni Mitchell refused to finish without the needle wobbling into another track. It made me smile, and appreciate the things that these physical versions of music could tell me that just listening to the songs couldn’t: With every record I felt heavy in my hands as I put it on the turntable, I could feel the weight of my father’s love for each song, entangled with my own so many years down the line.
They echoed into my room and I closed my eyes, finally understanding why people loved vinyl so much. Sure, it is pretty, and a symbol of the old-soul mentality many hipsters boast today, but there’s more to it than that. Sitting on my bed in the July sun, I imagined my father listening to the same records after buying them from the store new, in his dorm room, in a friend’s apartment, in his first house. There was something comforting about that image, something that I didn’t feel just hearing the songs in my headphones. But the thing that really got me was the fact that the songs I had stolen from my dad’s basement weren’t only just noise, they were wrapped up in memory too, sentiment that had the same place in each record that the music did.