“Kitsch” is a new, but actually old word getting a lot of play today. It’s a German word, describing anything that is popular because of its tastelessness or overly sentimental attraction. Something is kitsch or kitschy if it is so old and so bad that it’s cool. I don’t think I’m kitschy. The only person who thinks I’m cool is me, and I’m OK with that.
Old LP music albums might be called kitschy. A lot of young people think they’re cool, just for what they are. They don’t call them “albums” any more. They call them “vinyl.” I’ve tried to find the reason for their appeal. I’ve had conversations with younger people about this. They can’t seem to put their finger on why they like them. The best I can get from them is that they’re just cool.
I’ve listened to music in a lot of formats in my life. When I was a very small child, music was played on 78rpm records that were thick, brittle and would actually shatter if you dropped them. But during most of my youth, we had the now-celebrated vinyl in two forms: the small 45rpm “singles” or “forty-fives,” as we called them then, and the large 33rpm albums. These large albums were the backbone of our music collections. Up until that time, LP albums had been simply a collection of eight or ten songs. But with the release of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, albums began to develop themes and directions. They became works of art in and of themself. When we heard the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s, we were in a new world and realized that we needed to listen to the whole thing. Most of us had dozens of LP albums. The true aficionados had hundreds. The fanatic collectors stored them flat—horizontal on the shelf, knowing that, if stored vertically, they would warp, and the needle would ride up and down like a GTO on a country road, sometimes flying completely off the record. Most of us played those albums thousands of times, and didn’t do a very good job of keeping them clean and free of scratches. If we’d known how valuable they were going to be in forty years, we wouldn’t have written our names on the album covers. The reproduction of music on those albums was cutting edge at the time, but never quite free of the “hiss, pop and crack” that so many of us grew up with. We were as familiar with the pops and scratches as we were with the music itself–we knew exactly when it would pop or start skipping. Young people today are unfamiliar with a skipping record repeating over and over again (and do they even know that’s where “He sounds like a broken record” comes from?) But they also don’t know that we constantly fiddled with the vertical control knob of the TV to stabilize the picture. Skipping records and rolling TV pictures are two things an entire generation doesn’t want back. The past wasn’t always good, and vinyl wasn’t perfect.
In the late 80s, I bought a CD player and my first digitally-recorded CD album. Within ten seconds of listening, I knew that music had changed forever. The hiss, pop and crack were gone. I was listening to nothing but the clear, unadulterated sound that was intended for my ears. No more scratches. No more warping. No more carefully laying a dime on top of the needle to keep it in the groove. The first playing of this CD would sound identical to the ten thousandth–it wouldn’t wear out. Music had finally arrived in the form God intended.
I don’t know when music ceased to be one of the most important things in my life. Don McLean says it died in Clear Lake, Iowa in 1959. Maybe it died again in front of New York’s Dakota in 1980. Or again with Glenn Frey’s passing this year. Perhaps it dies of a thousand cuts. I recognize the devotion to music and its icons in young people today and I remember it. Today, music, and my collection of it are a very small yet pleasing part of my life. Secretly, sometimes, when the house is empty, I fire up my component system with my forty-year old Fisher speakers (which, by the way, are still better than anything at Best Buy) and indulge myself with ZZ Top.
I sold all my “vinyl” on E-Bay several years ago. I probably could have made a killing, but I sold them for more than I had paid for them, decades earlier. I had no more emotional attachment to those scratchy LPs than I would have for a vertical control knob from an old TV.
I feel a little sorry for the people who were selling CDs a few years ago. Like Edison’s revolving cylinder and RCA’s dog, that medium suddenly disappeared and they’re left with a lot of shiny Frisbees. The music survives, but not necessarily the medium. I’m OK with that, too.
I’m no closer to understanding today’s fascination with old vinyl LP albums than I ever was. If young people want something kitschy, wait till they see my 8-tracks. They’re welcome to those, too. Kitsch as kitsch can, I always say.