Routines, rituals, and revolutions

Youth culture, in its short history, has accepted few lasting icons, but the vinyl record is undoubtedly one of them. The unmistakable crackle of the needle coming down; the loaded silence, like a drawn-in breath, before the first note: this is the siren song of the teen age, the call to find yourself, by whatever means necessary. And it has remained so, despite its having been long outmoded.

For me, I think the fascination with vinyl largely comes from movies. From William’s sister’s proclamation in 2000’s Almost Famous that “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess”, to smitten zombie R bonding with his human captive-slash-love-interest Julie in 2013’s Warm Bodies, the message is clear: vinyls were damn cool in the seventies, and their damn coolness will definitely survive the apocalypse. But this fascination does not end with (spoiler alert) audiophile zombies finding love and becoming human again: vinyl sales were up 52% in 2014, with much of that surge coming from the under-25s age bracket. The demand for new records is reaching fever pitch, so high that it’s putting a threatening strain on the industry, and becoming known among bewildered observers as the “vinyl revolution”.

Many articles have put this so-called revolution down to the tangibility of vinyl in comparison to digital music, and indeed, there is something to be said for the almost larger-than-life quality of a vinyl record. For a generation for whom vinyl was never the default, the physical quality to records and listening to them is a novelty. Unlike a 79p download that is easy to buy and easy to forget about, they’re a conspicuous investment: you’re investing not only money but physical space in your life, as well as the time and effort put into playing the thing. As Alice Cooper put it to Billboard: “the kids … [are] tired of buying air. They don’t get anything with it.”

But there’s something else about vinyl too, not entirely unrelated to its physical-ness compared to the download. There’s an almost religious feeling to playing vinyl: entering into the vinyl mystique, a willing believer, carefully drawing the disc out of its sleeve before laying it on the altar to be traced by the needle. That’s a pretty dramatic rendering, but it’s not totally unfounded: Dominik Bartmanski, a sociologist at the Technical University of Berlin, put it to CNN that “Digital music […] is now a standard and thus routine way of consuming music on everyday basis. Analogue music requires more elaborate ritualized attention. It is routine vs ritual.” Listening to music on vinyl is ultimately an act of confirmation: of your own love, of the realness of the thing you love, and your dedication, over and over again, to its preservation and reconfirmation over time.

Perhaps that’s partly why the vinyl has been such a staple of teenage Hollywood fantasy for such a long time – isn’t this ritual the most quintessentially teenage thing? Nowadays, “fangirl” is a dirty word, but the rawness of teenage enthusiasm is what makes it so beautiful, and so easy to miss once you’ve grown out of it. That feeling of loving an album so much that you don’t just want to carry it around in your pocket, but to come home to it, to really own it, in its most beautiful, multisensory, and enduring form.

2015-08-18 14.31.31

To me, nothing drives this home quite as much as listening to my mum’s records. Dug out of the garage a few days ago and dumped into my arms, they are the remnants of a time it is otherwise hard for me to conceptualise properly. Before my mother was my mother – before I was anything at all – she was an excited fourteen-year-old running home to listen to her new David Cassidy record. I superimpose the memory of my teenage enthusiasm for All Time Low and Scouting For Girls onto the cover of Cherish and feel a strange companionship. It’s a similar feeling to when I stood beneath pealing bells in Florence last summer, the city she’d insisted I go to, in the shadow of the beautiful cathedral, watching the thriving life of the piazza. There was a familiarity to the smallness I felt beneath that tolling colossus, a familiarity that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with that sense of my mother, much younger, larger than life and looking up. It’s a feeling of proximity, of hidden similarity: companionship across time. Watching the first record she ever bought revolve on my record player elicits a similar kind of warmth.

Entering the next stage of my life, the scariness of my twenties, feels like a welcome moment to feel this kind of connection. In a lot of ways, vinyl coming to my attention now is very opportune. Its steadiness, its realness, its requirement of a love for and focus on what you’re doing right now, feels good for me. It’s a way to connect with the teenager just departed, a girl who cried when she met her favourite band and saw her favourite songs performed live. I see her in my mum’s records, and at the same time I see a vague ghost of the future, in the refusal of these records to ever really go away. There’s a sense of continuum to co-opting this classically teenage medium at the start of my twenties. The sense that, while there are new routines in store that may be daunting, and old rituals (like getting tearful over musicians with elaborate fringes) may be done with, I will find new rituals, and finding these new rituals doesn’t have to mean never looking back.

2015-08-18 14.34.59

Advertisements

Both an Organ and a Blade

When I tell people that I study English literature, there is one question that they almost always seem to ask.

“But hasn’t that totally ruined reading for you? Hasn’t it made it a chore?”

I can see their point. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience – the free play of the mind over the landscape of someone else’s words, at once a meeting of minds and a blissful self-isolation. It’s easy to see how the idea of imposing a structure on such a boundless activity, which essay deadlines and seminars and lectures inevitably do, of tuning yourself to what a text is doing and how instead of immersing yourself uncritically in its story, can seem like something of a death sentence.

And yet, I always reply in the negative. No – despite its best efforts, my degree has failed to make me hate reading. If anything, it has made me a more adventurous, more enthusiastic reader. Not only has it introduced me to books and concepts I may never have confronted otherwise, but honing my critical skills has been incredibly rewarding. The quest to be at once a sensitive eye and a keen and seeking blade is something I have found increasing enjoyment in as my studies have progressed. I enjoy the search. I am a reader.

The problem with my studies, then, is not so much what they’ve done to me in that capacity, but in another. If we’re being perfectly honest with each other, dear stranger, this blog post is about the most coherent piece of writing I’ve done in the last three years. The creative urgency I always felt – the urgency that drove me to write with naivety but always with honesty, the urgency that brought me to myself, that fuelled me – seems, in recent years, to have waned. What happened to that flame that was like a furnace? That kept me up at night? That filled pages and hard drives and days of my life?

The truth is, I already know. On those rare occasions that a flicker darts through the dark, there I, the reader, always am. Always over my own shoulder, critical eye and hungry blade: doubly armed with critical skills and a preordained knowledge of my own vulnerabilities, my veteran insecurities. Suddenly Roland Barthes’s assertion that the death of the Author is the birth of the Reader (a staple notion of my first year of university study) takes on an altogether more discouraging, more ruthless tone. I read and dismantle before I have even written. I cut myself to pieces. 

The furthest I get is a scribble in the margins, dogged always by an apologetic question mark – as if to say, “I’m probably wrong.” I put down the pen, move on to something else. Assure myself that the time for inspiration will come some other day.

But that is just not good enough for me any more.

The time has come when I can no longer pretend that this is working for me, this working myself up to the possibility of creation and then chastising myself for its inadequacy. I need to accept that there’s no bolt of lightning coming for me, no magical moment of revelation when suddenly that flame will roar into life again, and I’ll be saved from this long silence. The only solution is to try. To push past my fear of myself, of mediocrity. To write my way back – however painful, however arduous – back to that voice of creative confidence I feel I have lost.

And so, this blog is born. Not in the spirit of despair, but of reconciliation – the reconciliation of reader and writer, critic and creative, self-consciousness and self-acceptance. And above all the hope that I can allow myself to be both organ and blade without tearing myself to pieces.

I hope, for my sake, that it works. I hope for yours that it’s worth watching.

“It is an intrinsic human trait, and a deep responsibility, I think, to be an organ and a blade. But, learning to forgive ourselves and others because we have not chosen wisely is what makes us most human. We make horrible mistakes. It’s how we learn. We breathe love. It’s how we learn. And it is inevitable.” – Nayyirah Waheed