About a year ago, when my son was two, he figured out how to operate the tabletop CD player that sits in the corner of our dining room. Like other natives of the digital age, he could swipe his way through iPad apps just like the kids in the commercials, and he came to think of any back-lit surface as something that could be manipulated with his fingertips. But he seemed to take a certain glee in handling a CD—putting it in the player the right side up, opening and closing the lid, pressing real buttons, getting down from his high chair to skip ahead to “Yellow Submarine.”
Earlier this year, my in-laws bought a turntable with a built-in CD recorder so they could digitize some of their old vinyl collection. They still had the children’s records that my wife and her sister had grown up with in the ’70s and ’80s, so my son got to know Pete Seeger, Sesame Street, and Winnie the Pooh, and he also got to hear the familiar Beatles the same way his parents did: richer, more “present,” with the Rickenbacker guitars clanging and chiming over the snap, crackle, and pop that old records carry with them. We didn’t let my son handle the turntable, but he spent hours looking at the album covers and liner notes and making requests—out loud—something few people ever have to do anymore, since any song in the world is now a few clicks away if you have a smartphone or modem. There was clearly something different, something more, to be found in a stack of LPs.
A few weeks later I went up to my mom’s attic to gather old vinyl from my childhood: Bat Man and Spider Man records with comic books bound within the album covers, the “Star Wars” soundtrack, whale songs, Harry Nilsson’s “The Point,” another cache of Beatles LPs, and many of my dad’s other favorites from the late ’60s and ’70s. What had seemed like dead weight for the last twenty-five years now seemed like treasure.
The Bat Man and Spider Man records were appropriately goofy and just scary enough to give a toddler’s world a few new dimensions, and for me they were a trip because I got to realize how weirdly off I often was in interpreting those stories when I was a kid. (It’s kind of like recalling my vision of human reproduction before I knew about vaginas: A mom and dad hug and kiss for a while, and then nine months later a baby comes out the mom’s butt.) The richness of experiencing music through analog technology—having albums to physically search for, covers to study, liner notes to read, not to mention the sound itself—compelled me to drop some Amazon credit and a sizable chunk of cash on a decent turntable. (You’d be amazed how much you can spend on a turntable.) Yeah, it’s not all that convenient to get up and flip a record after half a dozen tracks, and some of my records are a quite warped and scratched, but it feels like I’m hearing things in their entirety again after relying exclusively on mp3s since 2004. And as this YouTuber explains, there’s a ritualistic quality to listening to LPs that is essentially nonexistent in the mp3 world. I can pick up my dad’s “Crosby, Stills, and Nash” and think, This was in his dorm room. I can listen to Joni Mitchell and wonder if my older brother was conceived to it. That kind of knowledge beats the crap out of having Facebook tell me that someone I’m “friends” with but haven’t communicated with in 15 years is listening to the same artists on Spotify. It’s actual intimacy instead of the illusion. And it has the additional upside of not being monitored by some entity that’s tracking my habits in order to determine the best way to take my money .
There’s also something to be said for handing the reins back to the artist by listening to their songs in the sequence they chose, and not only hearing those songs but hearing 99% of their content as opposed to the small fraction that actually gets into an mp3 file. The ease with which we can customize—or avoid—interactions with other human beings is supposedly some kind of progress, but in some ways it feels like progressive alienation. And we are all ripping ourselves off when we rip a track from a CD and turn it into an mp3.
I’m pretty sure a good portion of the kindling with which I’ve renewed my romance with vinyl is plain old sentimentality, and having a kid certainly gives a new shine to even the dullest of activities. But the consensus seems to be that LPs are better than CDs, and both put the mp3 to shame. (Not long after Steve Jobs’ death, Neil Young outed Jobs as a vinyl lover who most definitely was not plugging his iPod or iPhone into his home stereo system.) Some kind of loss-less digital audio format may be around the corner—Jobs was working on it and Young is, too—but in the mean time you can dig out your old records or start a new collection by hitting yard sales and garbage dump swap shops. Don’t let the hipsters’ alleged ownership of this trend dissuade you. If you haven’t listened to a record in ten or twenty years, you may be surprised at how it moves you. And your kids will probably love it, too.
One word of warning: Album covers can be powerful things. I fell in love with Donna Summer after getting my hands on this cover back in 1978.
My next experiment in re-engagement with the physical world and making sure my son is good with his hands and not just his fingertips is to have one day a week that’s “analog only” in our household. No computers, no smart telephoning, no digital cable, no mp3s, no touchscreens. I will report back on that experience if I succeed in making it happen.