In Defense of Obnoxious Hipster Retro-Luddism
As is obligatory for Creem magazine wannabes like myself, I am a big fan of Wilco, whose latest album the Whole Love, was a surprisingly excellent work for a band that had descended into unfortunate levels of NPR-accepted statis. Today they posted on their website that they are releasing the album on Piano Roll (an early April Fool’s joke, I assume). Piano Roll, according to my best wikipeding, is the process of recording music via long sheets of paper with notches cut in it. A player piano is required to hear it. They haven’t been widely used since 1927, when shellac 78s started to take off. As they announced:
“Wilco pride themselves on authenticity and a respect of the American musical tradition, so what better way to honor that heritage than to listen to The Whole Love on a barely functioning piano in a dusty antique store,” writes Chief Wilco Strategist Lucy Lillabee. “Besides, these things cost like $1 to make, and hipsters are going to eat this shit up.”
The joke hits a bit home. First it was vinyl, and carrying around new 33s was a sure sign of taste. Now, as our vast readers of hipsters are surely aware, the cool kids are selling their recordings on a hipper and even less practical format: cassette tapes. As anyone who has been to one of the thousands of new bars in Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene that force their employees to dress like a Prohibition-era barmen knows (or has taken a look at Trader Joe’s turn-of-the-century bourgeois aesthetic) there is a vast market for pseudo-authenticity, for consumer items whose very appeal is that they appear not to be consumer items, relics from an innocent time, goods whose exchange value is astronomically increased by seeming to be all use-value.
Of course, there is no more evidence of being an insufferable hipster than humorlessly complaining about the insufferableness of hipsters, so let me show a little empathy for the luddism that Wilco is (lovingly) mocking.
As absurd as it all is, I think the hipster love affair with vinyl (and cassette tapes, and homemade pickles, etc…) actually speaks a bit to the dullness of digital culture. People increasingly participate in culture digitally: they download music from itunes (or steal it), they read books on their kindle that they bought with one button on amazon, they watch movies streaming on netflix, and tv on hulu. As a result, the places and cultures that used to be hubs of these things are dying out. Records stores are going extinct, video-rental stores (like the famous Kim’s of the East Village) are out of business, and even the big-box book stores are going under.
Sure, record stores were run by snarky aloof losers, book-stores by dweeby know-it-alls, and video-stores by the worst of them. But they were still little cultural hubs, where you could learn about cool new bands, have a book suggested, etc… At their best, book stores (like say Cambridge’s Raven or New York’s Book Culture) can feel like mini-temples to all the knowledge you don’t yet have, inspiring you to want to read and know more.
So I’m of two minds about the digital transmission of art. On one hand it democratizes it, letting every kid in every small town download whatever they want. On the other hand, it removes so much of the mystery and meaning out of the experience. This might sound hyperbolic, but things like itunes disenchants the experience of buying music, just as kindles do the same for reading. Last week I was in Other Music, an insufferably hip but kind of charming record store (referenced as Alan Sparhawk’s “favorite record store” on Low’s classic album The Great Destroyer), and came across an early Belle and Sebastian album on vinyl. I had forgotten about all the little stories that Belle and Sebastian used to put on their album covers, the unique imagery they employed on all their releases (close-ups of precious looking models with pretentious literature in their hand, all faded some monochrome wash) and just holding the record induced some sort of twee “episode of the madeleine” moment, bringing me back to my days as a college dj, when I first started listening to the band. Belle and Sebastian, in particular, cultivated an entire aesthetic to their recordings, something only fully appreciated if you can hold the physical object in your hands.
There is a totality to the experience of most art; you never experience anything with only one sense. Music brings to mind images and experiences, you remember the shape and feel of the books you read, etc… I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like digital art lacks much of this, its one-dimensional and flat, stripped of the context that the artist consciously and unconsciously meant for it. The record as object used to have a certain magic to it, as the portal into the artistic experience. I know lots of bibliophiles feel the same way about the printed book. Certain books and record sleeves even have a particular smell of fresh paper.
With music in particular, the inability to quickly shift between songs and albums on vinyl changes the experience completely. You are stuck with the music, forced to listen to every song in a way that you aren’t with your ipod, which encourages a sort of musical ADD. Sure, those filler tracks on Guided by Voices albums were annoying, but waiting through a crappy song like “Auditorium” in order to get to “Motor Away” was an essential part of the experience. The Times just reported on a similar problem with readers and their ipad, as readers can’t concentrate on long books for long, without checking their email or facebook. I imagine long or more challenging literature will suffer if everyone is interspersing their twitter feed with their Pynchon.
Which is a long way to say that, yes, I paid $27 for The Whole Love on vinyl back when it came out, when I could have gotten it for $9.99 on itunes. I haven’t yet invested in a player piano, but maybe some day…