I have a lot of CDs. For those who don’t remember, CDs (or ‘compact discs’) were how you purchased music back when people still bought music rather than rented it. Hard to imagine now, I know. I used to buy CDs weekly. Each Saturday, I’d take a trip to the store and make what I hoped would be wise and judicious selections. I’d fossick around for hours before marching up to the counter. As I did, I’d always be looking for some flash of recognition from the person tallying my purchases – a small facial inflection that said ‘this person really knows their stuff.’ I don’t know why approval is so important when it comes to music, it just is.
My purchases were a mix of the well-researched and pure, gut instinct. It might have been an article I’d read about the band or a review in a music magazine that piqued my musical interest. Or the cover. More often than not, I wouldn’t have heard the songs before buying them. It was a leap of faith into the musical unknown. An act of curiosity designed to expand my horizons. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. There are definitely some CDs that were played once in the car on the way back from shopping and were never played again.
The role of CDs in my life has changed. I used to have a box of CDs that I carried around in the car, swapping out the contents based on my taste at the time. I did this to ensure that I had access to high quality music whenever I was driving. Traffic lights were opportunities to change discs. During this time, I mastered the art of being able to swap CDs without looking. In my house, every flat surface was occupied by a small pile of CDs, waiting patiently to be played. No more.
I was in high school when compact discs first appeared. It was in a music class and the teacher spoke of CDs as if they were an invention that would rival penicillin in terms of sheer usefulness to human kind. I couldn’t tell you the name of the piece, but it was classical music rather than pop. The teacher put it in and pressed play before a look of pure serenity came over his face. This, he claimed, was nothing short of a miracle. The difference, it was said, was quality.
I was a tape person at the time. Most kids were. I owned very few records and generally avoided them. The record player was located in the living room. This meant that music played on the record player would be music the whole house would have to listen to. There are seven people in my immediate family – the chances of consensus on anything, much less music, were slim to none. My father owned records by the Randy Van Horne Singers and of the Beatles once predicted that ‘people would never tolerate that kind of rubbish’; he wasn’t going to think much of the things I wanted to play. In Venn diagram terms, there was nothing to work with.
Music is personal. Which is why tape decks were so vitally important. I had a tape deck in my room and there I could listen to anything I wanted. I could also tape songs I liked off the radio. This was an art in itself. You had to have the tape cued up and leap upon the ‘record’ button within the first two seconds of your song coming on. Sometimes the disc jockey would ruin it by talking over the intro. (Surely they knew they were ruining the home taping efforts of teenagers everywhere when they did this. Maybe that was the point.)
I was proud of my efforts. Every mix tape was a work of art and the latest tape was always the best one I’d ever made. I don’t know what became of those cassettes. I’m not sure I even own a tape deck now. It goes to show how far the cassette has fallen – from indispensible to relic within a couple of decades.
As I packed my CDs into boxes this week, I was confronted by every choice I’d ever made on those Saturday mornings. Some I was proud of. Some were mystifying. More than just my musical taste at a particular point in time, these CDs were tangible evidence of the person I was trying to be. They were like musical fingerprints.
A box set of Maria Callas because I wanted to understand opera (not sure I succeeded, still trying though). A copy of ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye because it was reputed to be one of the greatest albums of all time (which it is). Dave Pike’s ‘Jazz for the Jet Set’ because the cover had a lady with a fishbowl on her head. (Which, apparently, was enough to prompt me to buy it.) What owning a copy of Aaron Carter’s debut album says about me is not worth thinking about. Yikes.
Being reminded of all those decisions is kind of melancholy. But the strangest thing about packing up my CDs is wondering whether I’ll ever see them again. There was a time in my life when they were organized on shelves in alphabetical order and in categories. Now they’re housed in cardboard. It’s quite the fall from grace. Packing them away is an oddly melancholy experience. But they served me well. Doubtless they’ll be packed away for some time yet. Maybe they can hang out with my cassettes and exchange musical war stories. I get the feeling that my CDs and cassettes would have a lot in common. Rock on.