Postcards from a PhD
Just as one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I am learning the hard way that judging a paper by its title isn’t always advisable either. Even in the most prestigious of academic journals many a seductive tagline has lead to disappointment and I now approach with caution. That said, how could I possibly resist an article subtitled ‘Vinyl records and the trope of death’? I just couldn’t.
Emily Chivers Yochim and Megan Biddinger’s ‘”It kind of gives you that vintage feel’: vinyl and the trope of death” was published in 2008, in Media, Culture and Society and attempts to explain the enduring popularity of vinyl by exploring how, as objects, records are humanised. As a study it draws heavily on interviews conducted with a small number of record collectors and as a result doesn’t succeed in identifying anything revelatory in terms of explaining why people are drawn to vinyl. Yochim & Biddinger identify 3 categories which represent the ‘special qualities’ of vinyl; tactile, aesthetic and sonic. This essentially translates as records feel nice, records look nice and records sound nice. Nothing groundbreaking here.
It’s the emphasis on relating these qualities to human bonds that gives the paper some originality and the idea that records are “articulating an abstract relationship between technology and humanity”. So records feel nice because a physical object creates a tangible link to the past and the act of playing records, as opposed to listening to digital files, allows for more interaction between technology and user. Records look nice, the artwork is important and therefore we feel a higher level of care went into their production, which enhances our bond to and sense of value in the object. Finally records sound nice because they are warmer. Additionally they are more representative of the original recording, bringing us closer to the artist. We also like the audio qualities of records, the noise of playing them, finding worth in what would once have been considered flaws because it makes them feel real.
The ‘trope of death’ element to the article is somewhat underwhelming, mainly reliant on the familiar death/rebirth of vinyl turn of the millennium narrative. There is also a line of argument based on the origins of recording processes and the power of the recording to ‘bring the dead back to life’. Yochim & Biddinger suggest records are a physical object which link people of different eras, serving as a reminder of their existence and, therefore, mitigating fear of mortality. However, that this could be said for any object isn’t something that’s explored. There is also an interesting point made that suggests musical subcultures that place value on vinyl also place value on particular human characteristics, for example independence and creativity, but frustratingly this isn’t taken any further.
Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward’s ‘The Vinyl: The analogue medium in the age of digital reproduction’ (Journal of Consumer Culture, 2015) also takes death/revival as a starting point in their examination of the continuing appeal of the record. Though they draw on Yochim & Biddinger’s humanisation of vinyl, it is, they suggest, only one of a plethora of symbolic narratives of the medium. They also move beyond the realm of the collector exclusively and, early on in the paper, make the case for a coexistent and complementary relationship between vinyl and other formats, which is a refreshing change from discussions which seek to polarise analogue and digital mediums as representative of perceived ideological consumer standpoints. This challenges the apparent oddness or unexpected nature of the revival of vinyl by detaching it from what Bartmanski & Woodward identify as a “purely quantitative perspective based on assumptions of exclusively linear technological progress”.
Bartmanski & Woodward’s theorisation of the resurgence of vinyl – the fastest growing area of music sales – is far more entrenched in critical theory than Yochim & Biddinger’s, and indeed is far wordier. They identify vinyl records as (deep breath) “aura-laden objects connected to constellations of other non-human entities that facilitate a series of emotionally charged rituals and experiences on which various communities thrive”. This draws on Durkheim and the role of objects in community identification. It is a mythos they themselves are clearly entrenched in; the paper is peppered with references to the authors’ own purchases of note, and crate-digging anecdotes. The ‘excitement and enchantment’ of the search for vinyl is just one of the ritual practices the authors associate with the attachment to the medium, describing it evocatively as ‘serendipitous urban archaeology’.
Other ritual practices identified are involved listening and the symbiosis of the physical format with the idea of a carefully curated object, which goes back to Yochim & Biddinger and their theorisation on attachment to the human element of vinyl. Bartmanski & Woodward also discuss the physicality of records and the way in which this enables a rekindling of the cultural message, both as an outsider format which recontextualises digital technology but also as a cultural archive to be mined. They identify the existence of prosumers a term they use to indicate ‘proactive or producing consumers’, and the role of the vinyl record as agency for the emergence of a number of music genres, a “cultural and political other to digitalisation and corporate mass production”. This is a useful inclusion which hints at Yochim & Biddinger’s mention of contingent values within subcultures that value vinyl and expands the personification of the vinyl aficionado beyond the passive nostalgic mode of collector into more progressive territory.
Finally, Bartmanski & Woodward look at the iconicity of vinyl and object meaning. This was a difficult section of the paper for me, drawing extensively on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura, with which I’m unfamiliar. It certainly flagged up some further reading, as the paper did as a whole. With its four page bibliography I should be busy for a while.