When I was a kid, records were my teddy bears

by on Thursday, 13 March 2008 Comments
Have you ever bought music on the Internet? I purchased my first couple of MP3s on the Web last week and it was the most depressing shopping experiment I have ever had. No illustrations or liner notes. Not even a receipt that I could have kept as a souvenir in case my computer would be destroyed by a killer virus. Just a file on my desktop, which name consisted of a series of random letters and numbers. That is not what the whole music industry had promised me. Music purchased on the Internet was supposed to be the future of music: a future where my shelves would not be clogged up with plastic CD boxes anymore, where my favorite song would not systematically be corrupted by scratches, and where I would only listen to the music I like, instead of having to buy those full-length albums in which half the tracks are rubbish. But for me, this future looks like more of a regression.

For Walter Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction of works of art (films, records or photographs) had led to the erasure of their sacred value. Now, the digitalization of such devices leads to a further loss: that of our affective attachment to all these daily objects, vinyl records, CDs and cassettes that used to clog up our shelves. The thrilling sensation of unfolding a new disc and putting it gently on the record player has been replaced by a cold and impersonal click on your mouse. The whole ritual that constituted our listening experience is vanishing as our old musical objects are being replaced by immaterial files. In these dark digital ages, maybe the time has come to sing a happy requiem to our old and beloved records – before we import them all in our iTunes libraries.

Among my memories of childhood, some of the most vivid lie in these countless hours spent in my elder brother’s room, browsing through his huge rock and punk records collection. I was only five or six years old by that time, and I would probably have received a good pair of smacks if I had dared to put any of those black acetate discs on the record player. But however, I was still allowed to watch the covers, and that is how I discovered most of what were to become my favorite bands and artists: by looking at pictures printed on 12-inch cardboard squares. For the middle-class child that I was living in a cozy suburb where the only annoyances where the dogs and pigeons’ droppings that made the streets look like Jackson Pollock paintings, such images were like these exotic names you discover when reading an atlas: sources of dream, curiosity and excitement. At a time when reading a book gave me the most terrible headaches, record covers were like a window wide open to the world, from where I could glance at white rockers and black jazzmen, leather jackets and three-piece suits, sexy girls and freckle-faced kids. They were also a way for me to develop a rather personal culture: before the age of ten I was already able to namedrop a few hundred names of bands whose music I still had not listened to.

I can still remember vividly some particular items of such sulfurous iconography. There were the covers that paralyzed me with fright, like these Motörhead LPs full of skulls and fat bikers. There were also the mysterious ones: this big yellow banana on a Velvet Underground record drawn by a guy called Andy Warhol; or that immaculate disc by P.I.L. with just a dark triangle of hair in the middle. But my favorite covers were definitely these of David Bowie’s records: each of them seemed to portrait a different person. The young guy that still looked like any other folk singer on Space Oddity suddenly became an androgynous character on the front illustration of Aladdin Sane, before turning into a strange creature, half-man half-beast on the Diamond Dogs cover. As a channel for Bowie’s perpetual self-reinvention, these covers conveyed an almost mythological meaning that in many respects exceeded the music itself. Looking at such a rich and extravagant iconography, I think now that my teenage fascination for rock stars was created as much by images as by the music itself.

So whatever the future of music looks like, I will still cherish my good old vinyl records. LPs are not just about music and sound – they also have a smell and a specific touch quality. I guess they also have a taste, although I never tried to eat any of those old plates. But most importantly, they are primarily ritual objects. Here is my problem with computer-purchased music: I’d like to take care of my MP3s, to clean the fingerprints on their surface and to store them in nice comfortable boxes. I also would like to be able to break them, to make scratches on them, to dirty their covers with my graffiti. MP3s make me anxious: they make me fear of a world where objects would have disappeared, where books and records and all sorts of devices would become simple digital artifacts displayed on a screen. I want to have my bookshelves clogged up with things, even the most useless ones. Because objects do not only fill empty spaces on your bookshelves: they are living parts of your memories, they belong to your heart and flesh, they make you feel less lonely when you are alone. When I was a kid, records were my teddy bears.

Benoit Bouquin

Former Philosophy graduate student in Paris, Benoît learns communications and media in Taipei. Despite his love for decadent poets and techno parties, he likes to think of himself as a "dandy-humanist" rather than as a nihilist. Benoît performs as a DJ under the moniker BB.

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