The Vinyl Record – A Skeptic’s Account of the Graven Image
So, today is Record Store Day. I didn’t prepare a special release or anything like that for Record Store Day, because I’m still paying off massive law school debts. So here is a short essay:
Let me start out by saying that I don’t have much experience with vinyl. My first experiences with vinyl records were as a kid. My parents had a record player, and I remember a copy of Disney’s Pinocchio that they had on vinyl – the record itself had a very intricate illustration of all the characters of Pinocchio on it. And that’s all that I remember. Fast forward to about the age of … 33. Which was the time that I got my first record player. I snuck into Bleecker Bob’s, just after it had closed its doors for good. I was just staring into the store as the employees were packing things up, presumably to place in storage, and I walked in and asked if they were still selling anything. After all, I had heard it was such an important place, and I wanted to get a little keepsake before the end. The guy said it was okay. I bought a few vinyl singles. The other thing that I bought was one of the old record players. The employee said it was broken, that the owner (I’m assuming this is Bob?) had set it to the side because it didn’t work very well. I asked if I could buy it, and he said that I could. I don’t even remember what I paid for it – maybe fifty dollars cash. But in any case, I walked out with one of Bleecker Bob’s record players (pictured above) on the day they were emptying the store. In addition to actually releasing a vinyl record, these are the three main life-interactions that I have had with vinyl.
Can I say, in some sense, I don’t really understand vinyl as a format. I don’t think I can actually hear much of a difference myself, and I worry that a focus on audio differences between analog and digital is a classic way of missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps the audio experience that vinyl offers is better. But if you want to insult my music, please tell me how much you enjoyed listening to my record because you love that warm vinyl sound that my music happens to be packaged in – and not because you liked my lyricism or composition skills. I don’t think the audio quality argument (even if true) does much. The same goes for what you might call the “intimate experience” argument – that vinyl is great because it offers a more intimate experience or a physicality that digital recordings do not. The response I’m going to give is the same as with the earlier argument. The argument focuses listeners on the wrong thing, and as a result demeans the music and the purpose behind listening to the music.
I’m reminded of the Second Commandment – “Thou Shalt Not Make Unto Thee Any Graven Image” – and surely God was not talking about the vinyl record when he referred to graven images. But I think there’s an analog in the Bible to the point I’m trying to make here. (See what I did there). God commands that you make no graven images, because even if the image is a likeness of God, it starts to create confusion in the minds of worshippers. Worshippers start to confuse God with the graven image, and so the effect is one of leading people to these imperfect graven images of God and away from God himself. And so, I worry that the vinyl record can have that effect as well. Obsession over the graven image distracts people from the music itself – which incidentally lines up with the argument and response pattern, above.
But maybe I’ve got it all wrong. After all, the Second Commandment is the angry God talking. In Genesis, the Bible also says that humans were made in God’s image. (Yes, still the angry God, but creative!) So in some sense we are graven images – imperfect manifestations of the perfect being. And as imperfect beings, maybe we can’t worship God perfectly either, and so we need a graven image from time to time as a crutch. Let me mention a story – not about vinyl but about tape. When I was in high school, I had a tape of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. The tape was made from clear yellow plastic, and I listened to it so much that the tape got worn out and I couldn’t listen to it anymore. But, for the few years that it did work, I think that I could hear the music better, and sometimes I wonder if I could hear it as well now as I did back then. It’s not that the tape had better audio quality than a digital file (it most certainly didn’t), and it wasn’t that I enjoyed the intimate physical listening experience when I listened to the tape. It’s that I needed the tape to fully get in touch with the music itself.
Maybe the vinyl record then is like a religious rite, embodied in physical form, that helps us to get in touch with that higher power. It isn’t the music itself and it doesn’t provide some other experience superior to music – that would be idolatry. But it has a place and a purpose in our music listening lives, because we are but imperfect physical manifestations of the perfect being. Graven image in need of graven image.