Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tale of the Tape

While riding the subway the other day, I noticed a guy standing near the middle of the train car, listening to music. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. He looked to be in his 40s or 50s, with a patchy beard and Velcro shoes. He was wearing a mismatched sweat suit (appropriate, I guess, given that he was sweating profusely), and he was bobbing his head up and down and singing along to whatever music was blaring inside of his ears, as crazy people tend to do when they’re on the subway. But after giving him a few “eye sweeps” (the same move that guys employ when we’re trying to subtly stare at boobs without getting caught), I determined that, upon closer inspection, he was listening to a portable cassette player. Not an iPod, not a “Zune,” not even a Discman. A tape player. Bold move, good sir. Bold move. The fanny pack says “Let's do lunch!” but the Sony Walkman attached to your sagging pants says, “You're paying.” After a quick glance at my cell phone to confirm that we were, in fact, in the year 2008, I got to thinking: What shapes the choices we make when it comes to music formatting? Why do some people choose to listen to, say, records over CDs? Or CDs over mp3s? And what do these choices say about our personalities?

There are no concrete answers. Some people listen to records instead of CDs because they consider themselves to be “purists,” and the soothing sound of a needle on vinyl transports them to a simpler time when musical recordings were—I don’t know—scratchier and more-difficult to transport. Or, perhaps, those who still listen to records or CDs have simply been priced out of the market for mp3 players. Americans are not known for being particularly disciplined spenders. Debt is rampant in this country, and what we buy is rarely limited by what we can actually afford. Still, I suspect that the man on the subway simply lacked the means to purchase an up-to-date music player, so he was forced to listen to his Loggins & Messina album on a cranky, hissing beast connected to a pair of ludicrously oversized headphones.

(And if you’re reading this and saying, “That’s an unfair assessment, Ryan. You’re jumping to conclusions about this man’s financial situation,” then you clearly missed the part in the beginning about the Velcro shoes. Wealthy people don’t wear Velcro. This dates back to the Middle Ages, when wealth was measured by the number of laces on one’s shoes. Kings and Queens were known to wear shoes that laced up to their waists. Peasants, on the other hand, were often forced to wear turtle shells buckled to their feet. OK, I made that up. But my point is, if you see someone listening to a tape player, you can surmise that he or she does not go home each night and swim, Scrooge McDuck-style, through a giant sea of money, right? This is not a blind leap of logic. This is a critical assessment, and likely a factual one.)

But the second question—what do these choices say about our personalities?—is a bit more complicated. My analysis is below:

What your vinyl record collection says about you:

“I am 127 years old. And they’re called ‘phonographs,’ Buster.”

Or, “I’m a twentysomething hipster, and I buy vinyl ‘cause it’s part of my culture, like mesh trucker hats and chronic unemployment.”

Or, “I am Timbaland.”

What your 8-Track collection from the ’70s says about you:

“I have been intimate with a woman in a van.”

Or, “I regret these tattoos.”

But it mostly just says, “I listen to crappy music.”

What your CD collection says about you:

“I am intrigued by these ‘mp3s’ that you speak of, but I am afraid of them, much like a dog is afraid of a vacuum cleaner.”

But a tape collection? A tape collection says lots of things: “I do most of my music shopping at gas stations,” for instance. And, “I probably own a coonskin cap.” And, “I wear a Starter jacket in public without betraying even the slightest hint of irony.” And, “My presidential candidate is STILL Sam Brownback.” But, chief among these, a tape collection asks: “Do you have any spare change?”

So ramble on, my cassette-laden friend. And, until we meet again, may your subway journey provide you ample time to rewind and replay all of Side A of “Mother Lode.”


Srikant Narasimhan said...

Your judgements aside Ryan, I am still going to listen to my Genesis Invisible Touch, and Van Halen 1984 cassette tapes...

Wilson said...


zadecky said...

Seriously, you mock me because I listened to my cassingle of Knockin' Boots by Candyman on the way to work today? For shame.

Jeff Rudnicki said...

Make fun all you want Ryan, but once velcro blows up again you'll regret archiving your distaste.

Wilson said...

I've got to agree. Velcro, from a utilitarian standpoint, is strictly superior to laces. As our society advances beyond the petty cares of our heritage for artificial aesthetics, Velcro is bound to make a comeback.