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Media We Can Touch

Written by on April 13, 2022

In the following vignettes, our Digital Press writers explore the role of physical media in their lives.

Entry One: Max Dallas

Last summer, my dad tasked me with archiving his CD collection. It took me five days. My back grew sore from hunching. Alphabetizing them gave me an intimate look at it all. Loose discs, empty cases, lots of duds, and some hidden gems. Each CD initialed with “JD” in the top left corner indicated that he owned it before he moved to DC’s suburbs in the late ’90s and thus lost the need to distinguish his cases from those of his friends. 

Throughout the process of sorting, we kept finding more stashes in bins and shelves and portable cases. Original issues of De La Soul, Fela Kuti, The Police. An almost worrying amount of Grateful Dead recordings. 

My brother joined me, and we played CDs as we sorted. I learned to notice the discs’ beautiful, uncompressed audio when listening on our old stereo system. When we sorted them upstairs, away from the stereo, I noticed the light whir of each disc in the Walkman.

Reading liner notes slowed our progress, but hastened our immersion into an era that wasn’t ours. I looked at all 700 CDs that shaped my dad. Here was a large section of his life measured out in jewel cases. Now vestigial, they sit in our basement as a collection of dormant memories. His face lights up at the sight of Indigo Girls’ self-titled record, which contains my parents’ first dance at their wedding. Norah Jones’ Not Too Late sits without a case from its half-decade stint as a car album. A stack of unmarked, yet burnt discs sit in a bin amongst other miscellaneous CDs that we decided to keep stored away. Fiona Apple’s Tidal sits on my apartment’s bedroom wall, now a part of my modest collection.

Entry Two: Michelle Le

CD 1-6. Select. Play. My hands hover over the car buttons as I pick an album out of reluctance. This isn’t my first choice and I’d much prefer to listen to the playlists that I’ve made myself on my phone. However, with a car that is almost as old as I am, I sometimes don’t get that choice. As the bluetooth struggles to pair and the voice instruction rings out “connection unsuccessful”, I press the CD button in defeat. With the CD button, I’m given the illusion of a choice, but when I can only choose from six different artists, is it really one? As I take on the excuse of a choice that I’m given I struggle to remember what I have available to me. At most times, I only remember 3 out of 6 CDs. One of them is R5, my first album from middle school, with songs that I know too well and from an era I no longer remember. The next one is the soundtrack to Juno, which I picked up for 45 cents on a whim. Admittedly, it’s not a good soundtrack – full of peculiar little folk songs and twangy banjo jingles, a sound that is not found in my own playlists, but it has long occupied the CD space, so I let it stay. The third is a 5SOS album, one that came with the world tour concert tickets I bought – a concert that did not happen – in the same manner that many other things did not happen in the past two years. The other three albums are only identifiable when I press play, eyebrows raised, and wait for any semblance of a familiar chord to hit my ears. However, the reluctance to choose a CD to listen to is short lived as lyrics that I’ve long internalized and grown to know begin to play through my car. The CDs represent a permeance in my life – a constant reminder of a memory that once was. While I listen to the choice I’ve made, the track of the moment rings differently than it might’ve at another part of my life – songs about love feel full, songs of heartbreak no longer sting. I realize that all at once I am a different version of the person I was when each CD became one of the six.

Entry three: Evan Ibarra

I think it started in a shitty bookstore.

That’s a lie, it was a great bookstore. It had library ladders and towering bookshelves. It wasn’t famous, it was just some bookstore in bumfuck South L.A. County, where major arteries of a city are born, but no highways pass through. 

I used to parse through towering pillars of paper and dust until a title or cover caught my eye. I would sit on the floor and read those books to near completion or until I got bored, but I didn’t buy those ones. Instead, my cheapskate self bought $2 comic books like a Catholic at a confessional, trying to cleanse my sin of using a struggling small business as a personal library. 

From comic books, came books; and from books, came DVDs. And on the seventh day, God told me to stop, but I ignored him and bought yet another book I had never heard of but it was $5 and the title sounded cool. 

Calling it a collection sounds more dignified than the reality, which is just an assortment of things that I bought out of borderline compulsion that have started to gain sentience. Age is the common denominator of this collection: these objects needed to be so noticeably old and well loved enough for me to buy. 

I never bought new comic books. And I would never buy new books. Nor new DVDs or CDs or vinyl.

What I particularly love hunting for are shitty B-Movies, especially horror movies. Specifically horror movies. The trashier the better. I have many things in my collection, but nothing will beat the look and feel of the ugliest DVD case you have ever seen in your life.

Entry Four – Charlie Whitcomb

From the time I was about twelve-years-old, I had begun a weekly ritual. Every Wednesday, following my lesson at the local guitar store, I would cross the street to my town’s record shop. Lacking an allowance and spending skills, I did not have sufficient funds to become a vinyl connoisseur. Rather, I spent my weekly outings ravaging the one-dollar CD section. 

Early on, I would pick out a disc or two by the pop-punk artists I was familiar with— Green Day, Good Charlotte, Blink-182. However, as time went on, I felt myself lose connection with this music I was more-or-less raised on. This marked disconnection came as I was building rapport with the man behind the counter, Bryan, with whom I would speak to for hours on end each week, eventually culminating in somewhat of a brotherly connection. One day, I came to him and explained my predicament. He descended from his barstool throne, walked to the dollar bin and grabbed me a copy of Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie.

To say I played this CD too much doesn’t begin to explain my fascination for it. I would play it in the car on the way to lacrosse practice, on my boombox at home, even on the kitchen radio my mother used to listen to talk shows. One day, upon leaving the Davis Farmers Market, my mother and I returned to the car to find shards of broken black glass fallen like snow on the asphalt outside my family’s car. Upon checking the glovebox, I shattered a bit, tears welling up in the corners of my eyes as I discovered my beloved CD was nowhere to be found. This physical manifestation of my musical coming-of-age and symbol of my initiation into the world of musical exploration was taken from me as quickly as it had been given. This loss showed me the power of CDs as benchmarks in the history of my listening, symbolic of a time and place and the person that I was in that time and place, musically or otherwise. I still buy CDs for this purpose, but I can’t bring myself to grab another copy of Transatlanticism.

Entry Five – Emily Chang

Wired earphones are inconvenient. Their ground state is an intertwined mess. Working out with them requires dragging your phone around like an unwanted sibling. Also, who hasn’t given themselves whiplash when stepping away from a computer while wired in?

I own Airpods, but my $20 wired earbuds are what I reach for when I leave my dorm in the morning to begin my trek to campus.

Maybe I want to flaunt that I am an Enjoyer of Music. Maybe I’m suffering from a bad case of Main Character Syndrome, pretending I’m in an A24 movie while listening to sad indie music.  Maybe I just want the people flyering on Bruinwalk to know that I’m not intentionally ignoring them, I just can’t hear them. 

Though impractical, wired earphones have a nostalgic, charming quality that wireless earphones can’t replicate. With the resurgence of Y2K, they’re an essential accessory for It Girls, speaking to the cyclical nature of fashion. There’s also something endearing about a pair of worn-out earbuds held together by electrical tape and sheer willpower. And who can deny the romantic aspect of earphones? Sharing a song with someone is intimate enough, but wired earphones physically force the two of you to keep your heads closer, occupying a secret space void of the outside world.

Despite technological advancements, wired earphones have become a mainstay in the Gen Z zeitgeist. A rejection of modernity in favor of the ornament, they prove that aesthetics are rarely based on practicality alone; instead, they represent our personality, how we want others to perceive us, and our current state of feeling, making them all the more unique.

Entry Six – Charlotte Wren

Pretty. Odd. – Panic! At the Disco’s second album and my first record. 

I have been enthralled with records for as long as I can remember. My parents told me that I didn’t need one (my iPod nano sufficed of course), and that I would end up wasting all my money on vinyls. But even before I had a record player of my own, I would take the bus down to my local HMV and longingly stare  – particularly the intertwined blend of flowers gracing the cover of Pretty. Odd. It sat on its shelf just waiting to be grabbed. Although when I would go week after week it seemed as if nobody seized the opportunity to take it home for themselves, as if it were just sitting there waiting for me. The record was the perfect blend, with the Beatles influenced psychedelic sound to create the atmosphere that I was so desperate to cultivate in my own space, topped off with gorgeous art to spruce up my bland bedroom walls.

Jump to my sixteenth birthday – I walk downstairs to see a slightly scratched (but discounted) Audio-Technica sitting at my place at our dining table. Lying on top of it is a cleanly wrapped square, and I instantly know what it is. I neatly unfold the paper (to not risk damaging the record) and in my hands lies my very own copy Pretty. Odd. It’s not an original, it’s not valuable, yet to me it was such an important turning point in my relationship with music and how I consume it. I became completely obsessed with albums – my days of Spotify playlists are long gone. Taking the time to fully appreciate a piece of work in its entirety is unmatched – especially when that album is on vinyl.

Years later, I cannot resist playing the record whenever I go home and get the chance to be with my collection again. (If only I could fit my record player in my constricted dorm room.) Spinning it reminds me of my adolescence, and makes me yearn for a simpler time when I would waste my day away by romanticizing my life to a pop punk soundtrack. I wish I could say streaming the album on Spotify induces the same sense of comfort in me that the vinyl does, but listening to the album online just taunts me with an echo of the feeling I experience from my record. The familiarity and warmth is suddenly lost – the music somehow seems to turn lifeless in comparison. I don’t really understand why, I enjoy plenty of other albums to their full extent on Spotify. All I know is that nothing compares to my physical copy that my beloved Audio-Technica continues to pour life into time after time again.

Entry Seven – Sonja Stott

Burning CDs was a staple of my early childhood. New Years parties that ended with sparklers at 10PM (if we could last until then) were paired with a mish mosh of cheesy 80s disco, and songs ripped from the Shark Tale and Shrek 2 soundtracks. My first taste of “modern” music was gifted to me in first grade by a babysitter. I can remember most of the songs, the first track “All Summer Long” by Kid Rock, followed by the likes of Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, and most importantly Leona Lewis (in the form of “Bleeding Love”). The anonymous silver CD was stored in a frail paper sleeve, and accompanied my family on visits to grandparents’ houses. I would squeal in horror when my mom would mishandle my gift, having felt the disappointment of so many glitched-up Blockbuster DVDs to know the consequences of a thumbprint or scratch. 

On the bookshelf that is our physical media library, the 2007 relic is camouflaged too well for me to spot, regardless of a couple meager attempts at organizing the lopsided stacks of discs. It’s bittersweet to know that the physical collection of carefully ordered songs is gone, without the ability to be recreated. The sweetness lies in my opportunity to sift through music, free from any algorithmic push, and know that as long as I can keep track of them, they are mine to enjoy forever.

Entry Eight – Clementine Daniel

From the year I was born until family CD players were replaced by Bluetooth speakers, my dad compiled a list of my and my older sisters’ favorite songs from the year and burned them onto a CD for our birthdays. Because they fell only 5 days apart, we worked together to build a track list that encompassed the best of what we’d listened to together that year. When we were much younger, my dad made the whole list, filling it with Pink Martini, Dolly Parton, and Donovan (as well as a few storytime tracks to pass the long car rides). As my sister and I grew and changed, so did our birthday mixes; my dad had less jurisdiction over the sequence of songs, and watched in vain as his choices were phased out by Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

As a tangible, hard copy of our favorite songs from the year, the birthday CD represented my growth and development as a musician and listener, and my movement toward developing my own taste in music. Though that taste has changed over time, the birthday CDs remain concise and real. With instant streaming services at the tip of my fingers today, much of this succinctness and physicality is lost to the infinite capacity of playlists and the millions of tracks free of individual cost. Instead of passing out copies of my CD to my friends at my birthday party, today I can simply text them a link for instant access to my music. While there is something to be said for this practicality and ease of streaming, perhaps a limit or finality on playlists is valuable. To sum up a year into 20 tracks and four photos is about much more than just the music; it’s an exercise in memory and growth, tracing my taste with palpable precision.

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