Hobby, Obsession, Recovery
I’ve never taken drugs, but I imagine my relationship to music as a teenager was similar to a better-than-casual relationship with narcotics, beginning with the blind, dumb totality of it. I developed a tolerance and then love of silence in college, but before that I required constant background music, morning, noon and night. Of course I owned a CD walkman, which got no more than an hour of use a day and fit in none of my coat pockets, but I also owned a succession of waterproof CD player-radios. For showering. Even a fancy teenage girl doesn’t get through more than a couple classic rock tunes in the shower, but I had a habit that needed constant feeding. In retrospect, this lifestyle required a series of gestures that the age of computers rendered meaningless.
I loved my mixtapes and records, but the form my music consumption most often took was the Compact Disc. I loved and hated buying CDs. Visiting Tower Records was an act of pilgrimage, an all too-rare opportunity to commune with the objects of my devotion with other members of the faithful. I could spend hours in a record store, days in a used record store, which added a frission of intrigue to my reverie.* The reality of being 14, of course, is that no one will take you to the record store. I’m sorry, that should read “NO ONE will take you to the record store, EVER!” possibly punctuated by a door slam. The scarcity of record store visits reinforced my tendency to linger, which of course, reinforced the scarcity of record store visits.
It wasn’t just lingering to enjoy the fluorescence reflected in the shrink wrap. I always had a backlog of albums to consider buying - completing the discography of a favorite band, edifying myself with a classic - occasionally, disappointingly - falling for Rolling Stone’s relentless hype. Half of my gray hairs come from agonizing over which CD to buy. This was not a trivial decision. If the single was the only good track on the album, that’s a wasted trip to the record store and $12 - 20 down the drain. Reflecting on this, I’m ashamed of how I’ve squandered $20 in the last month, and wish I could recover the frugality of my youth, when I expected a lot of $20.
I fetishized the CDs themselves. Humble-bragging about how many CDs one owned was not uncommon. For me, after a point, keeping a CD case alphabetized was untenable, and I switched to an autobiographical system, a la Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. This system was unbelievably inconvenient for anyone but me to navigate, but as the book suggests, “comforting.” Flipping through my CD case was like Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pool of money - I took pride in the time, money and discernment that went into my CD collection.
The mentality that I developed around music in my teens transmogrified into something completely untenable as an adult. Like my Depression Baby grandparents with toasters, I have been hording MP3 files in an era of auditory plenty, and my iTunes is now out of control. With 30,000 tracks, it takes a painfully long time to load, consumes half my hard-drive and, even if I went back to the round-the-clock music consumption of my adolescence, there is no way I could meaningfully enjoy all of these songs.
The first inkling that I could prune my iTunes collection came a few years ago after my all-consuming obsession with The Black Crowes had come to an end. For several years, I’d traded live recordings with other obsessives - .FLACs only, primarily legally through BitTorrent, but also through the mail. I had months of these shows, and even after I wasn’t actively listening to them, I couldn’t bear the idea of getting rid of these shows I’d diligently chased down and collected. Finally, it occurred to me: “I can back these up.” Woosh! Hours of extended soloing on “My Morning Song,” zipped on to an external hard drive. If I ever want to go back to my nag champa and Birkenstocks days, those recordings are just a mouse-click away.
Today, it finally occurred to me that I can do this with studio recordings as well and I spent two hours curating the mess that was - and is - my iTunes library. Indie compilations from music blogs - gone. Pop-punk records I loved in middle school - gone. Lackluster sophomore efforts, eponymous releases overhyped by Rolling Stone, volumes of miscellany brought down in the hay-day of bittorrenting - gone.
Even as I’m liberated from my hording, I am afflicted by completism. Before MP3s, buying a CD single was a massive waste of money. Three or four songs, two of which are ‘live’ or ‘outtakes,’ no significant savings. The idea of having one or two songs by a band, unless it’s a genre or era-related compilation still feels wrong. ”Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne wants, and deserves, to live with the rest of Welcome Interstate Managers. This explains the unspeakably large number of unplayed tracks by power-pop acts of the 1990s in my library.
The more pernicious completism, is the philosophical. For years, my identity was built around a holistic understanding of pop-rock music and canonically good taste. We own Physical Graffiti, Live Through This, and In Utero, and I like none of those records. I have listened to Nevermind the Bollocks, but I don’t need to have ready access to that or Pinkerton, and they will be safe in digital mothballs in the event that the Cool Police should bust down my door.
The truth is, the Cool Police aren’t coming. The Internet with it’s endless lists of “Top 100 Most Important Rock Albums” and a proliferation of proto-Fricke’s reviewing the latest underground lo-core sensation, put them out of business, and services like Rdio have rendered music as a ‘collection’ obsolete.
Unless, you’re buying vinyl. Which you would if you were serious about music.