Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Columbia House—Ye Olde Mp3 player

Last week I was on a plane trying to fall asleep. The only way this is possible for me is with my mP3 player. As it cycles through the 700 songs ranging from Donna Summers to Interpol to Dolly Parton, I am distracted from the fact that the plane smells vaguely like a port-o-potty stuffed with dirty socks, and that I have to be elbow to elbow with a surly teenage boy for six hours.

As I drifted into a music induced slumber, I was thinking, could I explain to my thirteen year-old self what an mp3 player is?

When I was thirteen, besides having to walk uphill in the snow to school (which I did by the way but that’s beside the point), cassette tapes were still the main implement for getting your groove on.

Whenever I heard a band or song that I liked, I had two options. I could either, (A) wait until I heard the song on the radio and then jump from my bed to press record on the blank tape that was ready and waiting, or (B) wait for my allowance, ask (no, beg) for a ride to the mall and purchase either the cassette single or the entire album (depending on whether I’d already spent some of my money on several issues of Teen Beat).

It seems barbaric now, when all I have to do is type a band’s name into Rhapsody, click click click and I have every song they’ve ever produced as well as all their solo albums. I then put them in my magic little machine along with their hundreds of little musical friends and we’re off.

Thirteen year old Steph would just, like, die. Could she possibly even comprehend it? Every song she could dream of, new and old, just a few clicks away? Actually, at that point she wouldn’t even know what “clicks” meant. What Black magic do ye speak of?

So how to explain? (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I actually did spend time imagining how I would explain this if I could go eighteen years back in time.)

The closest I could come to imparting what it feels like to have an Mp3 player to someone in 1990 is Columbia House. Columbia House was a music club which to me was like magic and to my mother seemed like it should be illegal for them to solicit business from teenagers.

They would send you this crazy offer--twelve tapes for a penny (a penny!) and all you had to do was buy one (one!). (Plus pay shipping and handling and buy an album a month for a year.) But you can cancel any time! (ANY time!)

Included with the offer were sheets and sheets of tiny stamps with album covers on them. I felt like the world had opened up when I was perusing those pages of stamps. Every album I had ever heard of and hundreds I hadn’t. So many choices! It was better than Christmas. A few weeks later when the long rectangular box came with my twelve cellophane wrapped treasures I would blissfully listen to music for hours.

Of course a month later, when I had forgotten to cancel my membership and Columbia House automatically sent the “selection of the month” (always something lame like Michael Bolton or Boz Scaggs Greatest Hits) at a criminally inflated price, I would beg my mom to pay for it and call them to cancel. Damn kids.

I guess I could tell 13-year-old Steph that an mp3 player is a little like being able to have all the little stamps you want, instantaneously, all in one magic little machine, without the worry that a month later you’d have to pay $26.00 for Marie Osmond’s comeback album.

Or I could just say, "Just wait, you’ll understand when you’re older," and go back to sleep…


james ford said...

thirteen year old jim in 1985 only listened to dr demento and michael jackson. i think he would have cared less about the mp3 player and his main reactions would be:

1. "Wait, there are three new STAR WARS movies and they all suck? You're a king of falsehoods and sit on a thone of lies!"

2. "Michael Jackson did what? Wait, I don't even recognize that guy."

3. "What do you mean I'm going to max out at five six?"

4. "Who is Rachael and why should I run when I meet her? She's a chick that likes me? How is that not cool?"

5. "Dude, what have you been feeding me? Christ, I got to live in that body. Man, I really need to stop reading these comics and playing Atari and get some exercise."


Erica said...

Oh -- I was NEVER allowed to join Columbia house -- but I still spent forever picking out the albums I would get if I did. My ex was the type of guy who would join a club like that and be just anal-retentive enough to send every single tape or cd back to them ontime via the post-office, of course. Figures.

Andrew said...

this needs to be the premise of yr next novel, the sf/horror crossover hit "children of the pod," wherein young steph -- convinced by time-traveling future steph -- builds a cult of Ipod worshipers who await the coming of the nano-messiah. in the dramatic conclusion, the poddies act on a revelation from the prophet and raid the house of garage entrepreneur william gates. there, the kids challenge his gateskeepers to a street gang-style dance contest, which they handily win, thanks to their knowledge of the maquerana and other 90s fads. making their way to the lair of the big boss nerd, our protagonists play keep away with gates's glasses until he promises never to make music accessible to the people (though as a concession he is allowed to work with brian eno on the ms sound). teh end.

james ford said...

wait, wait, i can one up andrew. future steph visits 1985 steph accidentally leaving her ipod.

1985 steph then shows it to all her dumb little friends but her father, one year after the introduction of the apple II, sells the technology to apple computers replacing steve jobs making the seguins billionaires and the most powerful family in america. apple becomes the biggest electronics manufaturer on earth crushing sony's walkman and philips compact disc 25 years before the invention of flash media.

1985 steph becomes obsessed with the music of nirvana's nevermind album and in a pilgramage to seattle, she creates the grunge music scene and convinces kurt cobain he is a prophet. several years later they marry. courtney love dies of a heroin overdose behind a frisch's big boy.

this all ends with cobainism becoming a militant faction of the national organization for women where people are invited to "come as they are." steph transforms kurt into the successor of john lennon spreading peace and tolerance through the world.

the foo fighters never exist. danny ends up marrying jennifer garner... don't ask how, it just happens that way.