I am unapologetically a Generation Xer. Born in 1972, I take tremendous pride in being a part of the generation that straddles the divide between the Baby Boomers’ tumultuous sixties and the Millennials’ digital era. I remember the struggle of dialing a rotary phone and having to get up from the couch to change the one of seven channels on the television. Out the door first thing on a Saturday morning and back before it was too late with our parents not having a clue where we’d been.
But the coolest thing about us Gen Xers is that we have been on the frontlines of music’s evolution throughout the decades. Our early years were defined by vinyl records in cardboard jackets. Some were our own, most were our parents. Either way, we spent hours learning how to lay the needle just right on the record and then we’d sit with the jacket in hand and read the lyrics or scrutinize the artwork. I remember when my friend Christy got the The Family album, Prince’s first project band with Paisley Park. They sang the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and we would pass that record jacket back and forth to catch every lyric or to try and style our hair like the female lead.
We were adolescents and teenagers when music ushered in the portability of the cassette tape and the emergence of the boom box. Now we could bring Prince, Duran Duran and Madonna every where we went and even though the cassette jacket was reduced in size, we still read and reread it to get the story behind the music. From the jacket, we learned that even though MJ became a solo act, his brothers sang back up vocals on his Thriller album. All was still well in the Jackson family.
The compact disc changed our lives. We said goodbye to all of that rewinding and fast-forwarding and were introduced to the concept of “shuffling” on a multiple disc platter. Oh, the joy!!! But even though the technology got a little more sophisticated, the jewel box was still everything. It was thinner, sleeker and it brought the artwork from the cassette back to a respectable sized booklet. The jewel boxes also made such a cool clicking sound when you rifled through them at the music store.
It was actually my long neglected collection of CDs that prompted these meanderings. As a middle-aged Gen Xer, I’m down with Pandora, Spotify and iTunes. Most of the forty-somethings I know seem to have weathered music’s transition to the Digital Age pretty well. So much so that I had an entire debate with myself on whether or not to pack the CDs. I knew that I could access any song in that collection with some keystrokes and a click of a button. . or if I was really lazy, I could just say, “Hey Google.”
But, as I picked them up and started to look through the booklets, I remembered how good it feels to hold music in my hands. I began to remember where I had been when I bought certain CDs and why. The mad dash to Tower Records, trying to get that stupid sticker off on the side so I could open the jewel box. The best was discovering a song on the LP that hadn’t yet been debuted on the radio and realizing that IT is the best song on the album.
Some of my best memories are of driving into New York City with my dad to go to J&R Music World. It felt as big as a city block and I would just watch him walk around looking at records, reading jackets, talking to salespeople. At first, I didn’t understand why he would drive 40 minutes into the city for music, but I quickly learned that walking around a music store, holding that music in his hands allowed him to slow down, to savor the art and to share it with me.
There is a novelty to sitting at a computer and creating the ultimate Spotify playlist of 90’s R & B hits or perfect songs for a cookout. And the convenience and speed with which we can do it is amazing. But, perhaps there is a cost to how we create and appreciate music today.
I don’t know for sure.
I do know that I am not much of a consumer of popular music these days. Between all the garbage that is put out there, there is some real talent. . .Adele, Bruno, Kendrick. But there’s something missing. Now, it is possible that this is the start of a Gen Xer’s slow drift into grumpy old person phase. But I have to say, downloading a bunch of songs just doesn’t compare to holding an artist’s work in your hands. Records, cassettes, CD’s. . they made us slow down and listen and look. They gave us a space to connect with our friends and our families. . .even ourselves.
I decided to save those CDs.
Cheers to all of you fellow Gen Xers out there with your dust-covered vinyl, tapes and jewel boxes. I see you.
UP NEXT: Reflection #3: The Irony of the World Cup in the Era of Trump