MOURNING THE LOSS OF TANGIBLE SOUND STORAGE
On my one of my usual jaunts to Cavendish Square yesterday, I caught a glimpse of the now closed Look ‘n Listen store buried in the corner as I nipped past to Stuttafords. It was like seeing an atrocity committed to nature, like the burning of the rain forests with monkeys still stranded in the trees. Or coming across a shared video on Facebook about the ugly journey that meat takes to get onto your plate. I had to look away, but the image stuck in my head and haunted me when I woke up this morning. I’d seen this coming earlier this year when they were refusing to take orders for CDs and DVDs. I knew then, from their increasingly empty shelves what was happening. Given their polite and proud approach, I thought it best to not ask questions. In truth, I avoided going there for fear of them not having what I wanted and having to be reminded again, politely and ambiguously, about their looming close of business.
So, out of necessity, after many years of resisting, I finally started the process of learning to access music online. I felt like I was being unfaithful : not only to tangible music storage, but to the artists I loved so dearly, and indeed to myself and my own personal past relationship with the art and the medium that sustained it.
When I was little I purchased LPs for as long as I possibly could. Given my age and the rise in technology, that didn’t make for much time, but still I formed a small but much-loved collection that I treasure to this day. When I started out growing the Noddy, Famous Five, Carike Keuzenkamp Sings Children’s Songs, and Beatrix Potter (although the magical sounds of Mrs Tiggy Winkle being read out loud & accompanied by an even more magical xylophone each time she appeared, charmed me into my pre-teen years; long after it should have) records that my mom had lovingly bought me, I began spending my pocket money on my own music. Rick Astley, Roxette, Kylie Minogue, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Soundtrack, Fuzzbox (eat your heart out Lady Gaga. Have a look on You Tube if you don’t believe me)…. My sister and I had more music to our collective name, but because I had the orange and beige Fisher Price record player in my room, while she bought tapes, my acquisitions were always vinyl. I even had a black velvet record cleaner in matching orange case. Like petting a black cat, that black velvet had to be the softest thing my little fingers knew. I always had to resist my desire to stroke it with my dirty fingers. From an early age I was taught great respect for the material my favourite audio material was stored on.
When I started high school my mom bought me a stereo: 2 tape decks topped with a record player. If we’d had a man in the house I suspect we’d have advanced to a CD player as soon as they hit the market, but as a house filled with women, we had little desire for complex modern technology. (Figuring out remote controls, microwaves, and how to program video recorders was bad enough.)
When I’d outgrown Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue (who I had also listened to for perhaps a bit longer than was age-appropriate), I found myself hitting Green Market square and bee-lining for the second hand record stand. The owner of the stand always had a dark, pimp-like quality to him. Searching through the records was like going through discarded love letters. Were these albums no longer good enough for their listeners? And if not, why not? Purchasing them and listening to them I let them into my heart and made them feel loved once more. Their covers were tattered and torn, their vinyl was scratched in places, but their beauty was still distinguishable through their aging outer packaging.
The Cure… The Sugar Cubes… Albums that came out when I was far too young for their complex sound and their now even more complex past. But I opened my mind, often bought on a whim, and embarked on various unexpected love affairs.
When CDs became the next best thing in the early 90’s, I resisted buying them for as long as I could, often spending more than the price of the CD, to order the same album on cassette. I remember waiting eagerly for weeks after ordering The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream” on tape. Pearl Jam. Nirvana. Soundgarden. Dinosaur Junior. Alice in Chains. Most of these weren’t available in South Africa at the time (period), let alone on cassette. I was lucky enough to have a best friend with a shared love of music whose father travelled a lot, and was eager to please his young daughter. He must’ve looked very hip in his suit and middle age asking for such a thorough range of Grunge music. He must’ve also looked a bit backward & outa place I guess, asking for it on cassette instead of CD!
When ordering tapes stopped becoming an option, and my sister moved back home for a while after dropping out of varsity with a portable CD player in tow, I eventually and reluctantly switched to the new silver medium. I’d spent years and years of nursing emotionally wounded cassettes, getting to know the workings of their inner psyche; knowing when to spank them gently or hard (anyone who’s owned tapes knows what I’m talking about); how to clean them; knowing the noise they make when you’ve pushed them too far and their hearts just can’t go on; when their black ribbons explode out of their chests, even knowing how to do the surgery necessary to put them back together. It’s a skill I’ll probably never use again, but one I’m proud to have in my past.
When CDs came out, they offered the promise of an endless love: a technology so advanced, that they would last for decades. They wouldn’t scratch like vinyl (ahem) and they wouldn’t stretch like tapes. They were the way of the future. Their unfamiliar silvery appearance warranted respect and care. Although they were supposedly indestructible, and visually far more simple than what had come before, we instinctively treated them like mini deities. It seemed that we had met our perfect match: one so strong & reliable that we would share a bond well into the future. What we did not expect, as humans don’t, is that the present would become the past: that technology would advance even further, and that our tastes in music would change once more. What once seemed like infatuation, would become yet another short-lived marriage to be tossed out amongst the love letters and mix tapes and ticket stubs and worn out band t-shirts and curly-edged posters. There would be no more holding, no more caressing, no more carefully opening dog-eared album covers to read song lyrics or check up on band members’ names. No more (sometimes cheesy) 3 dimensional storage solutions for lovingly housing our collections. The multi-sensory experience of not just listening to music, but touching it, smelling it, looking at it, was all about to change.
When TOP CD opened its doors in the basement of Cavendish Square and the upper level of The V&A Waterfront, their stores looked and felt like the inside of a spaceship. The hi-tech lighting and silver, red & black finishes all reminded one of the advanced technology for sale. I remember sitting on stools that, at the time, looked like miniature aliens, and pouring over albums and albums of music before deciding what to buy. I like to imagine I was one of their best customers. I often spent all my money there. I was also probably one of their most demanding: placing many complicated orders for artists their staff had never heard of. (Nowadays if you walk into Musica and ask for something obscure, they look at you blankly and say “Sorry, but it’s not on our system.” So much for modern technology…) Perhaps their willingness to supply obscurity didn’t make for good business in a society whose ears were governed by the Top 40. Eventually, in the late 90’s, TOP CD closed its shiny spaceship doors. They had a massive closing-down sale, and auctioned off everything that was left- including their shop fittings. The alien listening chairs actually ended up being bought by my cousin. I lived with him for a bit while studying. They lost their futuristic status and were relegated to the wooden floor alongside our kitchen counter. They carried many a conversation. At parties, they were used for drunken bouncing and rocking rather than sanctified listening.
When Terminator II: Judgment Day was released in 1991, us girls drooled over Edward Furlong playing John Connor. The boys… well I guess they drooled over the cool motorbike, guns, and ground-breaking special effects. And we all had “You Could Be Mine” on repeat (rewind-play of course) The movie spoke of a time in the future where evil cyborgs would rule the world. Our fleshy, fragile humanity was to be destroyed by cold, hard metal. There would be massive, hot explosions and the robots would rise up. The threat to our humanity was the physicality of technology. Today, as I was downloading my music purchases instead of unwrapping their packaging, taking them out their cases, and leafing through their album covers, putting visual association to their sound, I realised that glass and steel and plastic and chrome were not the enemy: it was the increasing loss of physical contact; the numbing of multi-sensory experience.
We often use the word “clinical” to describe the aesthetics of modern functional design. Cold. Smooth. Hard. Inorganic. Symmetrical. All these words appeal to our sensory responses to them: temperature; texture; visual balance. Just because they are further removed from the essence of our being than natural-based products, it does not mean that they cannot still connect with us on a sensory level. As I pressed the flat button on my laptop to agree to the terms and conditions of my online musical purchase, I felt robbed: robbed of the joy of holding the sound in my hands; robbed of being able to add another piece to my collection; robbed of the experience that gathering music has always been for me. I felt sad; and a bit scared. I realised that we had far greater things to fear than the death of albums and the rise of MP3s; than the consumption of the natural by the man made.
When I log onto the internet, I get prompted to “connect”, and when I want to log off, I need to select “disconnect”. An interesting choice of words, when in human terms, in each case we are doing the exact opposite. In living through our computers and cell phones, we are beginning to eliminate contact; eliminate real connection. I think we’re all aware of this to some extent. I don’t know which is scarier, the looming threat of overpopulation, and the obliteration of our earth, or the potential of physical and sensory isolation/ deprivation. Perhaps considering a combination of the two is the scariest thing of all: a world overrun with drones of humans, all in such close proximity to one another, but each unaware of how to truly “connect” with the next. Living vicariously through our cell phones and tablets and laptops, we are becoming the cyborgs, and we are doing it so effortlessly. Or perhaps it is being done to us with so little resistance. Believing that we know someone by spending hours talking to them online, rather than getting to know the lines on their face. Telling someone you love them by typing it onto a keyboard rather than whispering it in their ear. Or worse still, reading those words in standard font and feeling them warm your heart. Are we going to forget what it’s like to truly feel, smell, hear, touch, taste? We’ve already separated ourselves from nature with our reliance on technology. How much further will we go? At what point will we just plug our brains in and stimulate the pleasure centres and believe that we are happy and fulfilled?
Of all the science fiction celluloid images that stand out in my mind, the one that scares me the most, is a scene from Part II of The Matrix Trilogy, where we are shown machines harvesting foetuses. Acres and acres of warm-looking translucent artificial wombs are connected to a system of wires, both feeding them and feeding off them. The glowing red foetuses stand out amongst their dark trellises and huge metal machine “farmers” like tiny poppies in a dusty field.
“The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120 volt battery, and over 25 000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the Machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields of you; endless fields where human beings are no longer born; we are grown.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEHoU0lWyx8
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