Why my music collection never really shrinks

Yesterday I wrote a post about how hard a time I have getting rid of books. It will probably not surprise anyone to learn that I have the same problem with tapes and CDs. (And it will not surprise anyone who knows me to learn that I still own tapes and CDs.)

But music operates slightly differently from the printed word, at least for me. Music has a peculiar power to evoke particular times of life, be they years or moments, or to attach itself to particular meanings or moods, in a way that books usually don’t. Sometimes that’s a nostalgic reaction and sometimes it’s kind of energizing, but either way it gives me an incentive to keep CDs around longer than I otherwise might.

As best I can tell, it works like this: Imagine life is a soup, boiling away on the stovetop. Some ingredients are in there from the beginning, and others get added in later on, but everything that’s in there stays in there and adds its flavors and so forth. And whatever stuff was added most recently stays on top, until either more stuff gets added on top of that and pushes it down or something happens that stirs the pot.

When I was in, say, middle school, I’d listen to certain music, and the songs would attach themselves to things I was feeling at the time or to things I had going on in my life. When I was in high school, there were new things going on in my life and new things I was feeling, so the middle-school set of things got pushed down and the high-school things took precedence. And the music I was listening to in high school (which wasn’t so much a shift or break from the middle-school music as an expanded repertoire) attached itself to those new events and feelings and what-not. Then in college, when I had new events and feelings and a lot of new music going on, the high-school stuff got pushed down and the college stuff dominated the surface. After college, same thing. You get the idea.

But at some point in high school I made myself a pair of mix tapes, one of upbeat music and one of slower music, the latter of which I intended for use on dates in the unlikely event that I ever actually mustered the courage to go on some. The songs on these tapes were culled from our family’s CD collection, which consisted largely of the music my parents listened to in the 1960s and 1970s. I was raised on that stuff, so I loved it. I went through the CDs, picked a song or two from each one, noted their running times, and came up with a sequence I liked that would let them fit on the tapes. At the end, I was pleased.

Where it starts to get a little weird is when, many years later, I listen to those tapes. Some of the songs, like Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” I put on the tapes because they’re great songs and I’ve never stopped liking them. Others, like Don McLean’s “Castles in the Air,” I’d forgotten existed, even though I liked them in high school and enjoy re-discovering them. A few, like Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” I like OK but have no idea why I included them on the tapes in preference to other songs I like better. (Maybe I wanted that artist or CD represented?) And then there are some, which I’m not going to name, that I know exactly why I included and the reason was some embarrassingly dorky high-school thing, like a crush on a particular girl whom the song reminded me of or something.

It’s an odd exercise in psychological archaeology, listening to those tapes.

But I started out talking about how hard it is for me to get rid of music, and that’s a big part of the reason. Now, some of the associations between music and other stuff were, as you might expect, stronger than others, and some of the music, whether due to its quality or my taste, I just liked better. I’ve had a handful of CDs that were relatively easy to let go of, and several others that I could probably persuade myself to part with if I were willing to get a little ruthless. But I also have quite a few that, even if I listen to them maybe once a year or less, you will have to pry out of my proverbial cold, dead fingers.

I shudder to think what would happen if I owned any music on vinyl.

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