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Shape That Defines a Life
old iPods at new prices, and the fetishization of our past.
Time can make easy fetishists of us all. The yearning and desire we hold in all the parts of us that keep moving through the world for a life we have left long in the rearview. The joke on Popular Social Media Websites about whether you truly love a song or a band or an album, or were they just popular when you were 16. Do we love anything, or was it just important to us as we were forming and building and hardening our hearts to a world intent on holding us back. The love we hold for all the years before the impact of all things became real, and everlasting.
On the wall of our apartment is a long series of IKEA Kallax shelves that Lysh and I thrifted when we moved into our loft and decided that wall was begging to be the home of an endless run of Kallaxs (Kallaxi?). We stacked books in there, knick-knacks and cherished memories and on the top plants and photos. And records. Thousands of records.
We have CDs too, but less so, and a binder that Lysh has that contains the tracklist of every mix tape she made in her youth, a cherished and well-guarded memory for her. We have some tapes, but not nearly that many. Tapes, for me, were the first thing to leave this world.
I was born in 1982, the same year that compact discs entered the media marketplace. They replaced and slowly pushed out vinyl and cassette tapes over the course of just a few years. By the time I was 5 or 6 the CD was it. Singular, shiny, the future of music. Record stores reacted swiftly to the sweep, the longbox was invented so shops could use the same racks they had been using to sell records before. Time shifted, attitudes changed. CD players, expensive but ubiquitous status symbols.
Ours was silver, a brushed metal body with a chrome finish on the disc drive, part of a stereo stack in the corner of our living room in the Yukon when I was young. My dad had built the stereo cabinet himself, out of window molding and bronze-tinted glass from the glass shop that he owned. A CD player and an amp and a dual-head cassette deck and my dads old turntable on the top, a brown AKAI deck with a dark bronze cover. My dads record collection had dwindled over the years from his brother stealing from it slowly over time. Taking my dads records and writing his own name on the cover to feign ownership. By the time I was old enough to be aware of the music in my life the records lived mostly in the basement. Oddities that spoke to an era that didn’t feel real anymore. We had CDs, we had our music. We had the music my mom and dad listened to, unique tastes that often intersect but not always. My dad doesn’t care much for Neil Young or Bob Dylan. I never once heard my mom play The Waterboys or Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.
The music my parents listened to, the sound of a house that no longer looks or feels the same as it does when I strain to remember it. Their CDs, the radio. Active decisions made in the soundtrack behind all the memories fading in and out of my mind as I move into my 40s.
I owned CDs, obsessively purchased as soon as I found the money to do so. I got my first job at 13, an age that would be unheard of now but I understand now it was in part to help lighten the load on housing a teenager who wanted to own things in a recession. The music I bought was part of me, something I paraded around to showcase a personality. These are the discs and cassettes that gave shape to a life.
In high school I installed a CD burner and a 56k modem in the computer that lived in my old bedroom upstairs, the wallpaper fading blue and my old spaceship wallpaper trim peeled off by the listless fingers of bored and stoned teenagers. My friends and I made punk rock comps of songs we sought and hoarded on Napster, then Soulseek and Limewire. We put funny jingles and skits in the mix, organized the tracklisting just so. A perfect flow and just the right balance of all things. We were influencers of our own designs, images of ourselves in the mirror as tastemakers ahead of our time.
In my 20s, I lived for a while in a punk house in Alberta with a drug dealer and other random ghosts of fading memories. My room was the corner of the living room where my bed sat. I had stapled a curtain to the ceiling to make a barrier for myself and everytime the landlord came by we had to tear it down in a hurry and cover the bed, pretend it was a pile of trash left by trash people. We burned CDs and left them on coffee tables to be burned by the lighters of stoned and listless youth. Ash covered discs of no importance, CDs to be copied again and again as they wore thin, became ashtrays or impromptu weaponry in inconsequential battles. CDs became just a vehicle for a Sharpie to show what it was made of. We owned very little, stole most of what we had and had nothing to lose.
Later still I moved in with my sister and future brother-in-law. I moved boxes of old CDs and books into a lonely basement, sat alone for the first time since my youth and wondered what might define me as I struggled with the reality that I was now becoming an adult. I started finding refuge once more in record stores, telling my sister I was going for a drive and then spending hours flicking through racks and listening to the staff picks and finding new loves and fast favorites. I began to cultivate, organize and catalog a life again. The discs that define a body.
In the early 2000s I considered buying an iPod, as they went from oddity to expensive status symbol. Apple had once been the go-to computer of the kids who read Techworld and Dune in high school and now it had shifted into something new, a homunculus of identity that might become everything you needed all at once. I didn't even have a Mac. Few did. Buying an iPod for hundreds of dollars seemed silly, but my music discovery was shifting away from the record stores to the MP3 blogs of the wild internet and I needed something to play and hoard all my new treasures. I bought a SONY minidisc player instead, and held fast on my belief that Apple would not claim me.
A year later it did.
I bought an iPod, a silver one with a click wheel and a tiny screen and suddenly I could carry so much in so little. White headphones traveled the length of my pocket to my ears and tethered me to a silver rectangle that shaped a life. I put aside a portion of my income to use on the iTunes store. Gift cards for holidays when no one knew what to buy for my guarded personality. The iPod grew, changed, became nano and mini and classic. It became a phone that no one could buy, status symbols for a new generation of the mobile and wealthy. On 30 Rock, Grizz gets excited about the prospect of Tracy Jordan making a lot of money to make a sequel to his hit movie Fat Bitch where he plays a talking dog and sings “we’re gonna get iPhones, everybody gonna be jealous”. You had to hoard wealth to have one of these. I had a clamshell phone that had broken 4 times and been replaced just as often and an iphone on me at all times. Pulling a tangled nightmare of white cord out of my pocket when it was time to walk home alone when I got too drunk and needed to make a swift exit. I had playlists on my iPod for every occasion, even this one. My iTunes library an extension of my obsessive habits, the objects that define a life.
I still have an iPod, a black 80 GB click-wheel one that sits on my desk and is in need of refurbishing. I keep telling myself this will be my project. Buy a kit from iFixIt and have a hobby, rebuild the memory of a life with my bare hands when the mood strikes. I never do, but I think about it often.
I read a news story yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Urban Outfitter selling vintage iPods. UO the purveyor of vintage ideas to a generation of people born after they would have been memories. Last summer we took my oldest niece to one here in Toronto and I kept looking at a reproduction vintage Sublime shirt, looked around at the average age between 21 and 30 in the store and wondered who this was for. I am 40 and grumbling to myself that none of these kids even know who Lou Dog is. There are racks of vinyl and shitty turntables, expensive shitty boomboxes and analogue telephones and I am in the graveyard of my youth but not that of the people who shop here. They are pining for a past they don’t have, the idea of a life that’s not even theirs, but they’ve been sold the memory of it.
And now they’re selling refurbished iPods, vintage tech at modern fetishistic pricing. A repro-iPod selling for around $350, which is the price that made me balk at them when you could still buy music to put on them.
We are selling the lie of a world that no longer exists. There is no iTunes store, no MP3 blogs and precious few avenues to walk down and purchase music. Computers don’t have CD drives, kids who believe themselves and their taste to be unique are no longer influencers the same way that we were. It is all so different now for so many, and this is always a bad thing that blends with good and time was not better when I was young just as it is not perfect now. It is moving and shifting and it’s just that we have flowed into a monoculture where few corporations own all things and the idea of selling an iPod to a generation of people who will post their Spotify wrapped in two months time doesn’t hold water.
We have eliminated the easy use of an iPod. I can still take mine, plug in the 5-pin adaptor I had to buy into my computer and it will load and with some tricks of the hand I can move music onto it, but it’s not easy. Not like it was. Time was it synced with my iTunes library, the catalog of things that defined me, playlists and songs and the free weekly single you got. Now there’s nothing, my iTunes library only exists because I have designed it this way. Kids shopping at an Urban Outfitters are less likely to have enough of a library purchased and cataloged and ready to upload to a device they bought for the cost of last year's iPhone at a store that sells reproduction Garfield phones. Streaming has become everything, the few places that exist to sell music are in danger. Bandcamp sold to Epic Games and then again to Songtradr and shedding most of its staff.
We are fetishizing a past we can longer reclaim, one that we have destroyed and done away with. We own very little, but we claim the past, physical media on the rise viewed constantly through the lens of nostalgia. CDs and vinyl saddled with the weight of words like “resurgence” and “fad”. We stream everything, we pay subscription fees for things in the cloud and we move from apartment to house to apartment with no boxes full of the weight of all the things that define us. We sell the perfect idea of the past to people for whom it never mattered anywhere and cherish nothing in the moment and in 20 years I wonder what memories will be left to sell. Vintage passwords to streaming services that were bought and sold by the remaining monsters of corporate interests who buy things only to bury them in places we will never know to look.
Maybe we will own things again, kids might have wethered boxes that collect their lives that they move from punk house to dank basement to a life worth living and they will cart their stories around with them, the cherished pieces of themselves that they own and cultivate and hold dear. Maybe they won’t, maybe it will be all playlists and 15 second videos and maybe that’s okay too. Some day all things end, and change, and we become old and we fetishize our own past as something better than what exists right now and this is no more right or wrong than the reality that things are different and impermanent now.
What if, in selling the past back to the generation that follows, we are selling them the promise we never kept. We buy records again because the people like me who grew up with our parents' dwindling collections wanted them back. We buy the CDs and cassettes of our youth and we hold onto them like lost pets newly found. We talk about our love of the physical things that defined our lives and our loves. The records we spun at dance parties that never ended, the beautiful mixtapes we made for failed lovers, the CDs that we made to prove we were someone, even just for a moment. These were the times we felt alive. We can feel old in the sale of old things but in the moment there lives the possibility of beautiful opportunity, that someone who believes this to be a relic of a past they never lived can hold it and remember what it feels like to hold something of singular use and immense value, a shape that can define them, and they can desire it just enough, hold that desire beyond themselves, that it might bring something back.
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