Until I got my turntable last year, I had forgotten how satisfying it is to slide a record out of a paper sleeve, put the needle down, and listen to a whole album from start to finish. There’s an element of ritual that feels not unlike the start of a prayer or a religious observance.
Because I was born during Schrödinger's generational gap between being squarely part of Gen-X or definitely a Millennial, most of my music listening was on digital media: CDs and then downloaded tracks. But in my sophomore year of high school, I bought a floor model turntable for $10 at a yard sale and even convinced the current owners to put it in their truck and drive it to our trailer—where I stored it right in the middle of my mom’s living room. I had a handful of records that I mostly bought on trips to Gainesville or Tallahassee. Because they were so few and unlike the rest of my growing CD collection, the records became especially notable in my memories, but regardless of the medium on which I was listening to my music, if it wasn’t part of a mix tape made by a friend, I listened to all of my music as complete albums and not individual tracks. I still do.
This afternoon, I’m spinning Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? by Of Montreal and remembering how it felt during some very dark times in my life to turn off my conscious mind for an hour and commune with a higher power composed purely by the collective will and intentions of a hundred misfits writhing in time to distorted funk bass lines in the dark. The jangly college rock strains of REM’s Murmur can take me right back to how it felt to be sitting in my room during my senior year of high school when most of my friends had gone away to college and I was left feeling alone and misunderstood in my tiny north Florida town. Putting on Bikini Kill’s self-titled EP summons every moment when I’ve felt empowered and justifiably angry in a patriarchal and very misogynist world. Somewhat contrary to the culturally accepted narrative surrounding The Cure albums, listening to The Head On The Door fills me with the nervous, ecstatic anticipation of when I was first falling in love with Allyson, complete with flashbulb memories of first kisses and hours spent chatting on AOL Instant Messenger.
Music has always been a transformative experience for me, and it tends to take over all of my senses. I find it difficult to listen to music with others because it’s not just background noise for me. (Contradicting myself or perhaps merely fleshing out a point in greater detail: Video game music, symphonic metal, and a subset of other music can be used in tandem with a cup of coffee to help invoke almost preternatural levels of focus in me.) In my world, music isn’t usually something to have on while doing something else; it’s an activity unto itself. I’ve written in the past about how sometimes when concentrating or overloaded I shut off visual input and go “into the tunnel,” and listening to an album or playing the guitar will often invoke this state in me without conscious effort on my part. I lose track of time, and trying to describe my mental state afterwards is difficult without the language of mysticism, religion, and ecstatic traditions. Music is inexorably linked to an altered trance-like mental state for me. I suspect that I’m not unique in this regard, but I also don’t personally know a lot of people who articulate similar feelings and experiences.
I’m very aware that buying a turntable and cherished albums on vinyl is ultimately a form of commodity fetishism, but buying the necessary materials and setting up a room dedicated to listening to records also helped me carve out a space in my life for something important to my emotional, artistic, and spiritual well-being. The tangible objects helped me manifest and articulate to to my simple ape brain the importance of pausing to enjoy musical art. Listening to Crass on a autumn afternoon is just as much part of my religious practice as is lighting incense at my personal shrine, meditating, or hiking through the wilds of nature. Under capitalism, everything is inescapably a commodity in the marketplace, including ultimately even the things that cause you to step outside the oppressive hegemonic structures for a moment or two. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, but trading some of my labor power for the chance to transcend the present moment and experience a wide range of emotions and mental states is definitely worth the exchange for me.