Hipsters everywhere love vinyl. The sound is “warmer”, they say. What is warm sound? Far from a music theorist, I will try to describe what it is about vinyl that turns the hipster into an addict of vinyl. I currently have thousands of songs in my iTunes; I also have an affinity for vinyl—even going to the Brooklyn Vinyl Fair.
I am guilty. I am an aspiring hipster. I love records.
As I pull my copy of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago out of its place on my shelf, gently take it out of its sleeve, place it on my record player, lift the manual arm of my record player, and place it on the record—eagerly waiting to hear that second in which it touches the Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) disc—, I think of the connection I physically make to music. The sound comes out of my little wooden box, and instantly the “warm” sound fills the room. There is a “pleasantness” to this (see Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Post-Contemporary Interventions).
For me, the vinyl experience is something akin to going to a concert. Instead of creating playlists, which deconstructs the work of various artists, through the vinyl experience I am encouraged to listen to the work all the way through. Perhaps, knowing that fans appreciate this “completeness”, is why artists still create full albums, rather than just releasing individual singles constantly. Perhaps, this is the same reason we still read poetry as written collections, rather than as individual poems.
If post-modernity has fractured everyday life, perhaps listening to vinyl can be a sort of feeble attempt to reconnect with some mythic past in which music was “whole”—to be sure, it never was, we just like the thought of it. Haven’t we been collecting pieces of information and reassembling them since at least the enlightenment (see: Robert Darnton’s work on The Literary Underground of the Old Regime)? We see vinyl as a connection to the past—the way things used to be. We want a “purer” sound.
If in post-modernity everything is fragmented and deconstructed, perhaps this affinity for a “complete” work is reflective of our attempt to start a process of re-construction. We want to connect to an experience that is shared and intentional. This is not inherently wrong. However, this comes with a cost. In order for us hipsters to have our “warmer” sound, there must be a sound with which to compare it. If everyone had vinyl, than that idealised “warm” sound we seek would be just like everything else—we wouldn’t know any different. That said, in order for us to experience the pleasure of vinyl, we inherently have to have another sound with which to compare it—the sound of the masses: digital.
One cannot dismiss the fact that purchasing vinyl (especially a new album) is more expensive, and is reflective of an ability to spend money on such a frivolous expenditure —what makes buying records “hipster” or post-modern bohemian—an irony that is both fulfilling and hypocritical. The hipster must have the resources to be able to partake in this exclusive activity—similar to the concert experience. To be sure, I don’t mean to shun frivolous expenditures, I’m just asking that we pay attention to why we make those expenditures, and how are those expenditures reflective of a privileged lifestyle. I would argue, conversely, that all people should have the ability to have frivolity in their lives.
What if everyone were able to listen to vinyl, eat organic (and live healthier lives), and experience travel to foreign countries, would we value these things the same way(s)? Arguably, all these “frivolities” can lead to an improved quality of life (depending upon what you value, or don’t value, of course). Why aren’t we doing more to make access to such “frivolities”, rather than obsessing over our vinyl collections?
We like the “warm” sound of our vinyls—rejecting the “cold” sound of digital—the sound of the masses. Choosing vinyl, becoming a part of a socially constructed, mythic music élite, allows us to validate our taste, and to feel superior. It allows us to think that the way that we listen to music is superior to others. It allows us to separate ourselves from “uneducated masses”. Listening to vinyl gives us cultural capital.
That is the cynical perspective. I’m still not giving up my record player—post-modern paradoxes and paralysis. Maybe it’s not just about the warmer sound per se, but also about the warmth, or affect, that we feel when we listen to the music. Putting on a vinyl record is a personal act—in a way that clicking a play button on a computer never can be. Perhaps, we listen to vinyl in hopes that we can actually bring back something that is lost in the cold digital remasters of music we love.