“Can I see it”?

Bret Bowerman 

My ten year old son, Nash, loves football. His football card collection spans multiple three-ring binders. He is addicted to fantasy football and knows the current standing of all 32 actual NFL teams. Recently Nash begged for a cookie.  Frustrated by his badgering, I told him he could have it only if he named twenty Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  He grinned as he savored that cookie.   

Nash also loves music. To listen to it. To dance to it.  He knows what he likes and prefers certain radio stations.   Yet, until recently, he would struggle to name more than a couple rock bands or singers.  Name an album? Doubtful. Name the lead guitarist? Forget about it.

Nash collects football but merely consumes music. He can ‘see’ Football.  For him, the question,  ‘Can I see it?’ really means “I want to hold it and explore it”. That’s how he learns.  Hold the football cards, wear his jersey or play with football action figures.  Even checking fantasy football on my phone, while digital in its interface, presents a visual record of his weekly performance and elicits attachment to the players, elevating some to hero status.  There is no “see” equivalent in music today because its all digital. It’s hard to ‘see’ streaming.

Has the digital age created a generation detached from music? Have youtube and Instagram stars displaced singers and artists as role models and heros? To be clear, digital music is not all bad.  It has leveled the playing field, allowing virtually any artist to release music and find an audience.  And streaming services have enabled access to thousands of artists and songs, anytime, anywhere.   I once ran a marathon with a disc man, committing to the same CD for nearly four hours.  Nash will never know that struggle.   

My generation straddled the technology hop scotch from vinyl to 8-track to cassette tape to compact disk. The frequent technology upgrades commanded mindshare and share of wallet to update equipment and build music collections.  It was a commitment.  I could ‘see’ the music.

My first memory of music was playing 8-tracks in my mom’s station wagon.  Far too young to be sitting in the front seat, let alone without a seat belt, I swapped out Barry Manilow for the Rolling Stones.  I could identify each 8-track tape just by feeling its sun weathered labels; a braille identifier.  I could do it with my eyes closed, I just needed to ‘see’ it.

So many childhood memories revolved around music.  Organizing my music collection by artist, then by genre, and then back again. Albums neatly stacked on my shelf, a shrine to the artists.  “Fast forwarding” a cassette tape using a number two pencil or slicing the plastic wrap on the new CD with an upturned thumbnail.  That soft whisking sound when a CD began to spin which would elicit pavlovian anticipation. Or fussing for hours to create the perfect mixtape for a crush, striking the balance between chart toppers and B-sides to suggest that “I get it, but also have depth.”  If Pearl Jam was the “soundtrack” of my youth, then renters insurance signaled my transition to adulthood.  But I didn’t care much about my clothes or computer.  It was my CD collection that needed protection.  

I recently bought a vinyl record player and a few ‘essential’ albums as an experiment to test if having a physical manifestation of music would spark any interest from Nash. I taught him how to manipulate the needle and care for the vinyl.  Before long, I’d find him standing next to the record player, swapping out records, and studying album covers.  Getting lost in the music, entranced by the revolutions. He can ‘see’ it.  Now, he’ll often ask questions, such as “Is Run DMC in the Hall of Fame.  “Who was better, Michael Jackson or Prince?” “What kind of music are the Beastie Boys? It sounds kinda like hip hop, rock and pop mashed together.” He is now focused on the artist, the genre and appreciates the concept of an album.  And I’ve noticed it has translated to heightened interest in digital music as well.  He’ll comment on songs playing in the car and often ask for my phone to search for a song on Spotify.  

Nash’s generation may never have the same physical attachment to music as mine.  I find that bittersweet.  But buying a record player sparked for Nash an appreciation for and a nascent commitment to music.  Now he can put a name to a face and a face to a voice.  And his record collection will grow commensurate with his love for music regardless of the format on which he is listening to it. Now, Nash can “see” the music, even when its streaming.  

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