Wednesday, July 26, 2017

My New/Old car, or An Autobiography in Music Technology

I have a "new" car. His name is The Tick and he's a 2007 Honda Odyssey minivan. He's called The Tick (after the comic book character) because he's bigger than he needs to be, but strong and friendly, if also potentially unintentionally destructive (superstrength without careful awareness can cause quite an "oops" sometimes). Like the Tick, he's also a little slow and possibly stupid, especially when it comes to technology.

Even though this car is newer than Duncan, the Toyota Highlander I had to give up because I could no longer afford to keep him in repair, the stereo system is lower tech. It's a 6 CD changer and doesn't even come with an aux jack, let alone bluetooth.

Replacing the stereo system with something a little more recent is more than I am willing to spend just now, so I'm the queen of the workaround. I've purchased a bluetooth speaker for use with my more modern devices. I've also resurrected my old CD collection, which has been quite the trip down memory lane and has me thinking about how technology has changed the way I enjoy music throughout my life.

When I began my life as a music listener, in the early 1970s, it still came mostly on record albums. My mother had a fabulous collection of 45s kept in these weird little plastic boxes that kind of looked like cake covers. Hers were candy pink and yellow, as I remember.

When we listened to music at home, we would make a little stack of records and set it on Mom's fancy record player which would drop and play them one at a time while we built things out of blocks or folded towels, singing along or dancing when we needed to.

My own records usually came with a storybook and you were supposed to turn the pages when the beep or bell or tone sounded so you could read along. My favorite was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. I didn't start buying records until I was a much bigger kid, and I never built much of a collection, just enjoying what my parents bought instead.

Mom also had an 8-track player in her car and we kept boxes and boxes of cassettes in the house, choosing out a case of them to take with us when we drove anywhere far away. I can still remember when I was an older kid and she gave all her old 8 tracks to one of her brothers. I was sad because I had genuinely loved being allowed to be the one to shove the cartridges into place and switch them out while Mom drove.

By the time I had finished elementary school, my family had switched to cassette tapes. Cassette tapes were awesome because they were a lot smaller and you could carry a whole lot more music with you.

They were also awesome because you could record on them, so when WEBN played entire albums at night, you could set your recordable cassette player close to the radio and make a copy of it all your own. (Where I grew up, you were either a Q102 or WEBN listener, and I was a WEBN listener because it was edgier and played the stuff my uncles, who were like 8 years older than me, had taught me was cool).

I upgraded my portable transistor radio to a portable cassette tape player when that became available and could ride my bike up and down the street listening to my favorite tunes.

That easy portability and share-ability of music really changed how I enjoyed music.

As I moved into middle and high school, the mix tape became a fixture of my life. Thanks to tape decks with dual cassette, you could make a copy of a tape to give to a friend, or record different songs off of different albums to make a collection of songs by different artists, on a theme or with a feel (you youngsters do that now, too, but you call them playlists and share them digitally).

I still listened to entire albums then, from beginning to end, but I loved how easy it was (comparatively speaking) to put songs in any order I chose. It was a great mixing of that earlier technology of a pile of 45s as a playlist and the easy portability of tapes.

I don't have a clear memory of the switch to CDs. I think it was slower, and involved years when I used devices that could play either thing and where you could record from CD onto cassette, but not vice-versa. That fell during late high school and college for me. I was busy and my memories are not mostly about what music technology I used.

Like the switch to cassette had been, the switch to CD was awesome because you could carry so much more music in so much less space. But it also had me back to listening to entire albums because, at first, you couldn't make your own, at least not unless you were some kind of tech guru.

I mean, I know this is a mind-blower, but most people didn't even have their own computers then, and we didn't have cellphones at all, let alone the tiny computer-in-your-pocket that so many of us use now.

By the time I graduated college and moved to Alaska, I no longer had any cassette tapes (though I *did* still have VHS tapes . . .which is an old fogey story for another day).

In 2001, I got my first iPod--the one with the click wheel. I LOVED that thing. We had ripped our entire CD collection into digital format in preparation, and since I didn't know I was getting an iPod, I also made a lot of mix CDs during this time. By then, I owned the computer equipment to rip and burn my own CDs. (These are some of the CDs I pulled back out of storage and am listening to again in my new-old car).

Over the years and iterations of iPods and then iPhones, I've gotten used to listening to music one song at a time, with options for random shuffle or by music genre or by album, or in whatever order I choose via playlists. I use streaming services in different settings, but I still like feeling like I "own" my music and we have a GIANT family hard drive full of all the mp3s we've collected over the years. I'm using my iPod less than I used to, and don't plan to replace it when it stops working, relying instead of my iPhone and streaming services, so another transition is going on right now.

What I almost never do any more is listen to an entire album. Albums are tricky. They might be great, featuring many songs you love which are carefully ordered to provide a listening experience that runs some kind of gamut of feelings or leads you through a narrative. They might also feel really random and include one or two things you like and a bunch of crap.

Back to using CDs in The Tick, I've been listening to albums off all those old CDs again, and it's jarring. For every album that works as a single art piece, like The Rising by Bruce Springfield, there's one that feels like you have the same song recorded at mildly different speeds 13 times, like The Ramones CD I tried to listen to today.

A fun thing, though, has been discovering all the mix CDs I made back in 2001, and in the years since. I found one collecting songs my then-toddler loved (she's 17 now). I found CDs I bought at music festivals I attended during grad school. CDs that I bought to replace earlier technology, music I first loved on 45s or cassettes. That collection we made for our wedding. Kindermusik, Kim Possible, and Laurie Berkner, from earlier stages in my children's lives.

Just like browsing your book collection after a lifetime of collecting, these CDs are a history of who I am and where I've been, what and who I loved at different times, how I felt.

You know, maybe I won't throw them out when I decide to splurge on that new stereo system after all. There might just be too much of me in them.

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