Those were the days – or were they?
I tweeted a visual joke recently. It involved people making the connection between an audio-cassette tape and a pencil. Most people on Twitter, in these parts at least, are too young to get it. Heck, most are too young to know what a cassette is…
Yes, young ones: once upon a time the most common medium for your music was a small plastic casing in which were spooled two reels of tape. You inserted it into a cassette player, and voila! Music ensued.
End of history lesson. While my younger followers looked on perplexed, my age-mates revelled in nostalgia. They knew exactly what the pencil (or better, a biro pen) was for when it came to music: to insert into the reel holes and wind the tape manually when it got messed up. It was a surgical exercise. And when the tape got cut (it often did), even more delicate surgery was needed to put it back together again…
What was interesting was how happy this discussion made the oldsters. They (we) went running back down memory lane to recount how precious music was in those days; how you had to buy it on long-play records (LPs) and record it on tapes; how you made mix tapes of your favourite songs for your significant others; how many kids shared and copied the same tape; how anyone who had a ‘twin-deck’ player ruled because recording was so much easier; how metal tape was better than chrome tape; how TDK was better than Maxell, or Telefunken bested Philips…
Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.
Except: when it came to music collections, those really WEREN’T the days. The fact that only a few people could afford big music libraries, and the rest of us had to beg and plead for them, was not a good thing. Music was extremely expensive – and extremely fragile. Your most cherished LP, the one you saved up to buy, was only one stylus-slip away from an indelible scratch. Your treasured tape would get mangled in someone’s car stereo and your favourite song was gone.
The rare stuff never came into the shops anyway. You had to beg it off the aficionados who hoarded and protected it like precious metal.
And the sound quality? All those crackles and hisses? Yeah, right. Great, it wasn’t.
So why do people wax nostalgic about eras in which the user experience was notably inferior? The thing to understand is that they aren’t harking back to excellence; they are yearning for their childhoods, their halcyon days. They aren’t remembering the (awful) tapes; they are pining for their first loves. The memories are of a lost innocence, a trouble-free time when there weren’t bills to pay and responsibilities to bear.
I have the same joyful memories, but I was utterly delighted to enter the world of modern music streamed anywhere and carried everywhere. I can now access all the lost songs that were gold dust in those days; I can deepen every collection; I can keep playlists in the cloud and play them whenever and wherever. No pleading necessary, no dubious sound quality issues, no heart attacks when the dreaded scrunching sounds issue from the tape player.
We also live in a world where a magical pane of glass that fits into your pocket or bag carries all the information in the world, accessible on a click. You won’t catch me pining for the days of expensive and idiosyncratic textbooks; of outdated encyclopaedias; of expensive newspapers telling you yesterday’s news; of boxy, fuzzy televisions that forced you to watch them at the time of the broadcaster’s choosing; of having always to go physically to gatherings and spend hours listening to bores droning on because there was no other way to connect with other humans.
I am grateful all that is behind us. Does this generation appreciate the many advantages of fingertip knowledge, though? No. Neither did my generation appreciate the fact that we actually had trees everywhere, that some of history’s best vocalists shared our years, that we had clean air and clean food. That appreciation came long after we lost those things.
So it goes, as our lives flow on. We hark back to memories, often airbrushed; we worry about what might be coming; all the while missing what is great and before us, right here, right now.
(Sunday Nation, 25 November 2018)
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