Vinyl and The Cinematic Mirror
By Stella Lyons
Humans mourn for the cultural history of our kind, or rather the flattened versions of it we see. In publications such as Vogue, we read about the return of former fashion trends into the mainstream. In film and television, like Almost Famous or Stranger Things, we watch idealized and stylized recreations of our past eras.
Some would say that indulging in nostalgia is nothing more than a flagrant display of wealth. And in many ways, this is true— especially in the reemergence of vinyl. Stripped of aesthetic or sentimental reasons, people who buy records are choosing to spend more money to listen to music in a more inconvenient way, effectively rejecting the unbridled access to free and portable music available today. This can make the decision to buy records seem ill-advised. However, it would be too harsh to judge vinyl’s value simply through price and function. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, and this extends to consumers’ decisions. People don’t buy something only because of its price and function; a plethora of other factors are also considered.
Vinyl satisfies our human craving for a tangible form of music. While modern technology has granted us new ways to consume music, it has also taken away some of the former physical aspects of the listening experience. It is far less exciting to press play on your iPhone home screen than to put on a record. In those seconds before the record plays and you can hear only the sound of the turntable needle crackling, you experience a wave of anticipation. The turntable demands your attention. It comes down to the processes we perform to listen to the music we want to. Downloading albums or songs through today’s convenient methods requires less of our attention, time, and effort. This can make the act of listening to music feel more like an afterthought than a deliberate event. Vinyl serves as the very antithesis of this sentiment.
That said, this romantic view of vinyl can only thrive because we no longer solely rely on it to access music. Whenever I sit in my bedroom and play my Edith Piaf record while enjoying the scent of lavender being released from my air diffuser, I do not do it because it is convenient or practical. Rather, I do it so I can bask in the sublime atmosphere it creates. That is, until I have to go out into the world— in which case I immediately ditch the vinyl for my cracked iPhone and earbuds. Having a phone to listen to music to with allows the inconvenience of vinyl to feel charming instead of frustrating.
Such that, today the ability to interact and engage with an item that is not your phone or computer is exceedingly rare. Developments in technology have already altered vinyl’s identity from a household mainstay to a coveted luxury. Current forms of merchandise being produced reflect that. Just this past year, the soundtrack to the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name was released on a special edition peach-scented vinyl, as a nod to the film’s oft-talked about scene. Similarly, musician Father John Misty released a vinyl edition of his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear complete with pop-up book packaging. And this merchandising strategy is a trend that extends beyond that of individual entities. Walk into any store targeted towards teenagers, such as Urban Outfitters, and you will find an extensive vinyl selection available for purchase, both current and previous works of music. You can find the record Rumours by Fleetwood Mac sitting next to a copy of Beyonce’s Lemonade.
Some may suggest that the recent spike in physical record sales is only indicative of our continued affinity for products with bells and whistles, but I disagree. This conclusion only scratches the surface of vinyl’s regained popularity and relies on the belief that consumers are unintelligent people unable to think for themselves. It fails to interrogate the additional reasons behind these purchases: humans have always sought out experiences that we deem more valuable or authentic than the ones we have had. In his 1891 collection of essays titled, The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” This sentiment provides a succinct explanation of why humans acquire taste or show interest in objects outside the realm of survival. The ways in which we choose to express ourselves through our appearance, or through the selection of non-essential items we choose to surround ourselves with, reflects not only the world around us but the art and media around us, too. The films, television, photography, etc. that we are exposed to all play a part in the development of our own individual tastes.
When watching these depictions of former eras, we find ourselves clinging to celluloid’s nostalgic gaze. These reimaginings become aspirational and glamorous. What seem to be illusions become achievable realities. Wish-fulfillment films and television shows tell us that we, too, could have a perfect life. We, too, can experience the sweeping romantic gesture or miraculous life transformation. We link the dream life we wish to have with the aesthetics of the art and media that embody it. You may be unable to live in a past era, but you are able to emulate the culture of that time. This is the case for vinyl.
The disconnect between what we associate with vinyl and what it really was is no clearer than in the opinions of older generations. When I asked my father if he missed vinyl he said, “[No,] I was so happy when CDs came. No more scratchy sounds, broken turntable needles, or warped records.” Meanwhile, nearly all of the associations I have with vinyl are borne from film.
For me, records are irrevocably linked to stylish, artful, and ultra cool lifestyles. Vinyl is Suzie and Sam clumsily slow dancing to a Francoise Hardy record in Moonrise Kingdom, or the Lisbon sisters huddled around the phone in The Virgin Suicides communicating through the records on their turntable, or Celine and Jesse sneaking glances at each other in the listening booth of a Viennese record shop in Before Sunrise. The idea that vinyl facilitates an inherently intimate and emotionally charged listening experience has been repeatedly affirmed in the films and television shows I have seen. And so, like many of my young peers, I follow. It is as though we are all stumbling alone in the dark waiting for the cinematic version of our lives to flicker on the screen, magnified and magnificent, a version more beautiful and more worthy of existence than our own realities could ever be. We build the world we want to live in, and for some people, listening to vinyl aids in that. We bring these outdated items into our lives, and with them, our dreams of what our lives could be. So yes, maybe buying vinyl records is ridiculous or indulgent — but what is self-expression if not ridiculous and indulgent?