Spotify, the music streaming service that plays any song you want for free, just raised another billion dollars from investors, perhaps by promising to set the bills on fire individually instead of all at once. I use the service to look for new music, which I can dismiss as lazy noise before going back to my '80s playlist. I feel compelled to seek out popular music, because if I don't, I turn into an old man with tufts of hair coming out of his ears who harangues the Denny's waitress about the senior discount.
But it's OK not to care. Fact is, most popular music is always junk. The problem with the streaming services isn't that they only have 20 million songs, it's that they have 19.5 million songs too many. Wasn't it better when it took some work to find music you liked, and some effort to play it?
Why, no. Not at all.
The other day, I got an offer in my e-mail: a portable record player. Half off. Battery-operated. Plays 33s, 45s and 78s. Take your music wherever you go! Full, rich sound. Huh. Well, that would come in handy the next time the gang meets down at the beach for a clambake, and we can all frug to some hot platters. Do the mashed potato, Binky! This song is boss.
If you've been paying attention to the things you feel you should care about but don't, you know vinyl is popular again. And I mean "popular" in the sense that it's being written about in publications eager for a trend. The number of people who have returned to vinyl exclusive of all other formats is equal to the number of men with thick black glasses and curated beards who are involved in an artisanal sarsaparilla revival or some such nebbishy devotion to a bygone item that sums up a better, more honest time.
Vinyl may sound richer, depending on your setup, but it HAS one tck HAS one tck HAS one tck (scrrrrrtch) flaw, and that's the fragility of the medium. It is impossible to scratch a digital copy. Vinyl wounds and never heals. Oh, it has its pleasures; there's something about the sound of the needle finding the groove, the first few seconds of presence before the song starts. The finality of the tone arm reaching the end of the groove, rising, trafficking back to its nest and dropping into its perch with quiet satisfaction at a job done well.
But we forget how they warped if you left them too close to the radiator, then everyone on the record sounded as if they were nauseated. How you had to go through that pretentious ritual of cleaning your records with a wooden block covered with fabric — one line of nonstatic-purified ultra-harmonic Music Juice along one edge, then you laid it along the record, and pretended that it sounded so much better. All you really had to do was remove the hairball from the needle, and the only time you did that was when the singers sounded like they had pillows over their heads.
No, I don't miss vinyl, and no, I won't buy the battery-powered turntable for 63 percent off.
For one thing, I already have one.
Oh, it gets worse: I go to Goodwill and buy vintage records. Not stuff I like, but stuff that deserves preservation because it's so odd. You never know when you'll find a spoken word album by Neil Armstrong ("Fly Me to the Moon: Dramatic Readings of NASA Preflight Checklists") or "The Kingston Trio Hums Soviet Labor Camp Dirges" or some peculiar piece of American culture we've forgotten.
Sometimes you find the vanity album put out by the guys who played the Bismarck Sons of Norway every Saturday. The cover shows three guys in native costume and '70s hair and confused teeth. You run the titles through the Internet translators, and it's, like, "Fish Tickler Polka," "Ya, Ya Ingrid," "No Toes Tonight" and "Boil That Farmer (Waltz Time)" and so on.
Or it's one of those swank instrumental records with titles like "The Jackie Gleason Orchestra Presents Songs to Smoke an Entire Frickin' Carton of Cigarettes By," with a gauzy cover photo of well-dressed "Mad Men"-era adults holding powerful cocktails that would make an elephant take a knee.
These are fantastic records, usually; lush and bittersweet, steeped in rue and nostalgia. You can buy them online or probably stream them, sure. But there's something about holding the sleeve and pulling out the record, and wondering who owned this record back in '59. Whether he took this out of the wire rack to get someone in the mood, whether he put it on a year later to wallow in remembrance of love gone south. He hung onto it. The kids found it after he passed. Never occurred to them that this was Dad's gettin'-biz-zay record, because ewww.
But here it is in the Goodwill bin, an artifact of someone's life, shorn of all its meaning, aside from what you can guess. So I buy them, take them home, translate them to digital and then give them back to Goodwill for someone else to find. Catch and release.
The alternative is keeping the records around, which is tempting. With Spotify and other streaming services, there are millions of songs you're not listening to and will never listen to. With vinyl, you're ignoring hundreds of songs, at most.
Somehow that's comforting.