Stereo No More
When I was growing up, we had one stereo in the house. One. It belonged to my Dad, as did the albums that surrounded it. And I do mean surrounded: scattered on the floor, crammed into the shelving, leaning against the heavy walnut cabinet speakers (remember those?) that he spent real money on. I have a select group of my Dad’s classic sides – 20 to be exact – in frames lining a wall of my upstairs hallway, favorites I remember him playing constantly: Ray Charles, Ramsey Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, the Beatles, Sinatra. And sometimes, when I walk past them, I think about how profoundly his musical affinities influenced mine, how much poorer my knowledge of and appreciation for great artists from a diversity of genres would be if it hadn’t been for that single stereo and the clutter of vinyl that my Dad loved so much stacked in colorful piles all over the living room.
And it kind of breaks my heart how the experience of recorded music has become so entirely individualized, each listener cut off from the world by his or her own set of ear buds. Gone is the “family” stereo, in a central location, where you had to listen to things you probably wouldn’t otherwise encounter (sometimes ‘cause your dad or mom or grandma or uncle made you), experience a wide variety of sonic textures, listen to an entire album from start to finish (the songs had been ordered that way for a reason, like a live set list). It never really occurred to you to think that “old” stuff wasn’t cool because you knew it was cool. It had already become part of your musical vocabulary by the time you were old enough to buy your own stuff.
We like to blame the absence of music from most public school curricula as the reason for increasing musical ignorance, for the disheartening lack of historical knowledge and appreciation (my kids were the only kids in their elementary school who knew the name Thelonious Monk). And no doubt the lack of exposure in school – as well as the opportunities that no longer exist to become part of a musical ensemble at a young age – have been huge contributing factors. But I wonder: would that knowledge gap have become such a gaping chasm if we still had more communal listening habits? If a child had to appreciate – or at least tolerate – music that came before because it was right there in front of her? If there were big, beautiful, work-of-art album covers to catch a seven-year-old’s eye and compel him to play what was inside? Something essential was carelessly discarded when we retreated to our separate digital corners, smartphones in hand. With every technological gain there is always loss. I fear we have lost something we can never replace.