Jewel Cases

A strangely wonderful and somewhat anachronistic thing happened to me the other day: I got an actual CD as a birthday gift – a tangible object that became an anchor for a dialogue of sorts a friend and I had been having.

I’ve always thought that the best dialogues are the long, oft unspoken ones that take place at the speed trees grow and seasons change without any real need for words, and that there are little enough of those for us to fully appreciate in this busy life of ours.

This dialogue turned out to be about how music – and by that I mean good music – simultaneously gives us room to think and tell us stories we relate to, becoming an emotional lodestone around which we shape our own sense of self. And over the past months I’ve come to the conclusion that this process takes far longer (and is farther reaching) than all those hours spent soaking in your friend’s albums during your teenage years.

It’s become a continuous process in this day and age, when there never was so much music readily available wherever you go, and with so many ways to bring it along, that there is simply no excuse not to take it in and make it a part of your life.

We hardly think of music as anything but a business these days, and yet it is something of profound personal significance for most of us (especially those who experience hardship or happiness and need an outlet for them).

And, going back to the little epiphany I had when I unwrapped that jewel case last Wednesday, there’s something to be said for getting it in a physical form that becomes part of your possessions, something that you can touch, put away, even lose amid your clutter and find again years later, a little time capsule of stories and feelings.

Part of the future of music has long been with us – MP3 files take up no room, indie bands fade in and out of obscurity by running the gauntlet of the traditional distribution channels, etc. But it is harder to attach emotional significance to dots on a screen or bits on a platter, because that’s simply not how our brains are wired.

We evolved to live in a world where we could touch things, hold them up for inspection, gain pleasure from their sheer physicality, from their being there for us, neatly placed where we can reach for them in a moment of need.

And yet, music is our quintessential immaterial creation – the prototype meme, burgeoning with feeling and lore, spreading across cultural barriers like water through sand, reaching us in ways that literature or cinema can’t quite match.

And then there’s the way it rewires our memories, knitting them together with the physical.

Some of us have the ability (or is it a mixed blessing?) of being able to remember every single time we heard a piece of music and what was going on in our lives at that time – but nearly all of us can remember the physical actions that listening to music – any sort music – involved.

My generation will remember switching on the turntable, carefully lowering the needle and cleaning LPs. I might be a little odd in that I recall listening to Shirley Bassey around pre-school, sometimes wearing massive headphones plugged into a TEAC tape deck – the kind with reels in it, where you had to thread the tape through the head and spindles.

I vaguely remember 8-tracks, but the slap-and-squeeze of the Walkman was a familiar gesture for years, just as the smooth sliding of a CD into a groove until the iPod click-wheel and touch screen came along.

And yet, it’s all somehow slipping away. My kid, for instance, will probably grow up with Cover Flow or some such way to find the music he wants, but I hope he can one day hold in his hands something he can attach emotional value to while listening to it.

Maybe jewel cases will one day contain memory crystals of some sort, and finally live up to their name. Or maybe the future has something altogether different in store for him – in the meantime, I’m kind of glad I finally unpacked all of my CDs after years in storage, even if they’re all stored in the house server.

Now they’re only a touch away, in more ways than one, and I can rifle through the liners at will.

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