The Levels Of Difficulty With Which I’ve Listened To Music

Do you see that, kids? That’s called a AA battery.

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Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

A moment ago, it was too quiet in here. I sat melted into my sofa like paraffin wax and didn’t like the stillness. So I said, “Alexa, play Spotify.” And she did. I was instantly transported to my youth, wherein if only music had been so simple to access. I really started to remember. Every skipped CD, dead battery, scratched record, frozen download, fucked up tape I had to rewind with a finger—I remembered just how hard I’ve actually had to fight for my right to party. Will the children of today ever know what we, as early-80s born beings, had to go through in order to access that most crucial of entertainment mediums? Music is the fabric of us. Will they ever know how hard I had to work to make it mine? They will if I tell them. I will tell them about the way things used to be. I will tell them how goddamned far I’ve come, and how their all-access, on-demand, effortless little lives could never.

At first, I had to beg. I wasn’t tall or skilled enough to work the record player, and I’m pretty sure it was untethered to the wall and would have come crashing down upon me if I’d made any real attempt, so if I wanted to hear music, I had to enlist help. My parents were reluctant, and who could blame them, as their five-year-old only ever desired two songs: “Got My Mind Set On You” by George Harrison, and “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey. The only other tunes I knew existed were the theme songs to Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And we didn’t have those on vinyl.

The first time I had any of my own agency over music was in the form of a small radio with a cord that plugged into the wall. It was also an alarm clock even though I was seven. I’d never slept past sunrise and still don’t. There was a yellow plastic dial I’d have to turn with a certain degree of precision to land on 106.1 Kiss FM, and I’ll tell you it took time to get good at this task. The first song I recall coming out of my radio is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen. Which, in my opinion, is the ideal way to indoctrinate a young girl into popular culture. The bar was set high, as it should have been. Not long thereafter I saw a televised Queen performance and recognized the song from my alarm clock. I would remain in love with Freddy Mercury for the proceeding six years.

Later, the boom box. A behemoth that quite literally ate DD batteries for breakfast and served as my only connection to the popular children at school. I was forbidden to associate with them, but at least I could be cognizant of their musical heroes. I was thrilled to recognize a name or a song title during my regular eavesdroppings into their hallway banter, though I was painfully aware that I’d never participate in music culture the way their parents allowed them to. I could only sit next to my boom box, journal, and educate myself. There was a lot of longing and solitude during this time, but what tween doesn’t owe it to herself to indulge in this phase. Anyway it mostly had to do with Pearl Jam.

The boombox wasn’t just a radio that took up too much surface area and required regular dustings, it also held tapes. Two of them. So that you could take one tape and make another tape of that tape. Or, you could use it the way I liked to: You could sit at your radio with your fingers hovering over the “Play”and “Record” buttons, because they both had to be pressed mind you, and wait with the patience of a sea captain’s wife for the station to play the song you so desperately needed to record. I did this for hours, if not days. And yet I don’t recall even one of the songs I was so desperate to grab onto and make my own, so that I could have some say in what I listened to, and when. On occasion I would dare to call the radio station and request a song. It was always a thrill to be successful in this endeavor. I hate how much control 90s radio DJs had over my emotions.

Later, the Discman. My only companion on bus rides to and from school. I was a bullied child, using headphones with a curved, slidey metal headpiece as armor against the terrors of my hour-long commute each way. The bus would inexplicably always drop us off to freeze outdoors for 30–45 minutes before the school would even open, rather than just picking us up a little later and making any kind of goddamned sense. I digress. My Discman was more necessary than any other form of sustenance and more moody and unreliable than any man I’ve ever loved. If you held it wrong, breathed wrong, looked ill in its direction, it skipped. Lord help me if the bus hit a pothole, it would take 15 minutes of consoling the damned thing to make it recover. I can’t speak too ill of it though, my purple Discman was what allowed me to be raised by Jagged Little Pill. Not that it didn’t take me twenty goddamned minutes to open that CD upon purchasing it. I hope the sick bastard who invented CD store packaging is rotting in a hole someplace. I still have that sticker shit under my fingernails.

At the start of the digital age, music had to be purchased individually or criminally downloaded one song at a time until like…my thirties. Now, Spotify is akin to a family member in most households, present-day children never knowing a world without the ability to listen to literally anything they want, any time that they want, with nothing more required than the iPhone they inevitably already own by age eight. The injustice astounds me.

There was a brief merger between CD culture and digital culture. The height of the compact disc’s life cycle came in our ability to spend late high school and early college making mix CDs for each other. Huge zippered binders full of extremely thin frisbees lived under the passenger seats of our cars, and in some cases still do. Permanently entombing technology long rendered irrelevant. Mix tapes are a skillset, you can watch the last scene of High Fidelity to understand that. But to go back to my own experiences making mixes for people would be too raw, too intense, and is quite frankly its own story, so suffice to say that I was an artist. Unrecognized perhaps, but incendiary.

The iPod was a sea change, I’ll grant it that. It was the first step in lessening the massive amount of goddamned equipment required in order to just listen to the music. Of course you had to fill it with music first, as my generation has never known any goddamned peace. You could spend hours upon days of your life filling your iPod with MP3s one at a time, or you could listen to the same 23 songs on repeat. Your choice. Also, make sure your iPod is charged, kids. Portable backup battery won’t exist for like another decade and a half. You will spend your twenties wandering around the airport looking for an unoccupied outlet, and to use it you’ll have to commit yourself to a filthy floor. Have fun.

The iPod mini seemed so ridiculous, and I suppose still does. The Zoolandering of technology will never not be funny.

There are personal struggles I’ve endured in my quest for melody that have nothing to do with the technological progress of society however. Some strife, I brought upon myself. In my early twenties, my then-boyfriend came to me one day, so excited because he was giving me a gift. I’d never been given a real gift by a lover before and was thrilled until I realized that all he’d given me was his own record player from his mom’s house. This pattern would repeat. He never gave me an actual gift during our time together. For our one-year anniversary, he gave me a DVD rack. I’m pretty sure he’d taken that from his mom’s place, too. The bullshit we accept in our youth, my god. Anyway.

I would keep the record player for ten years and then dispose of it on a sidewalk in a fit of relinquishing myself of every object that reminded me of someone else. This was both a good and bad decision. My psyche celebrated a victory, but my longing for music was about to get a kick in the teeth.

Following the disposal of the record player, I tried to replace it. Five times. Read that again: Five times. I bought five different record players from five different sources. Each one was broken, and always in a different way. Some spun too quickly, others too slowly, some would simply distort the sound. I still don’t own one, there’s just a cabinet full of phenomenal records that have nowhere to spin. Like a little girl in a new party dress who’s forbidden from twirling around in the grass. Do you know I’m actually afraid to buy a record player now? I’m considering hiring a professional to break the curse.

True story: In that same house, with that same boyfriend, I used an expensive stereo designed to nestle an iPod and blast its contents about loud enough for party purposes. It had been a birthday gift from my stepfather. I used it once, and that night someone at the party I was throwing spilled wine into it. Not on it. Into it.

I spent many years after that never really playing music at home, content to earbud chosen tunes into my brain on long commute walks around Manhattan. Having had such difficulty with home stereo systems in the past, I assumed they simply weren’t something in the cards for me. Then Alexa came, and for the last several years she’s been gently draping me in the sounds of my favorite comforting mixes or maybe a little cocktail jazz while I putter around in the kitchen. It’s actually quite nice.

Which brings us to the present, me on my couch, reading a book because there aren’t any other activities that sound remotely palatable on this pandemic day. Simply barking a command at Alexa in order to get what I want, a gentle mix of Andrew Bird, Father John Misty, and Belle & Sebastian I’v compiled to get me through these insufferable times, is both all I can manage, and a goddamned miracle. It is astounding to consider what it took to get here. In my lifetime, I’ve listened to music via records, clock radio, boombox, tapes, CDs, mix tapes, mix CDs, MP3s both legal and thieved, all of those versions coming from the center console of a car, iPods of various sizes, and finally, via streaming service through my phone or house robot. I’ve fought my way to victory and the youth of today have never owned a thing with a cord. I am a living, breathing musical time capsule. I should be studied and preserved. When I tell Alexa to play me a song, I don’t take that action lightly. I know the alternative. I have a history. Hear me.

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NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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