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Essay

A Material World: The Smell of Vinyl

By December 19, 2014 One Comment
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I became infatuated with vinyl records as a kid. My dad would buy little 45 singles and my brother and I would listen to them upstairs on a portable record player. Back then it was The Oakridge Boys—Elvira was the anthem of my childhood. What I remember the most about vinyl records is the smell. There was nothing like ripping open the plastic and slowly sliding the large black circle from it’s cover. The shiny black with all the grooves…placing it on the record player and hearing the pops and crackles of the needle. The same can be said of cassette tapes and even CDs. I would always open up the package, pull out the lyrics printed in tiny letters, and then I would take a whiff. Different labels (so it seemed) had different smells. So Stryper smelled different than Van Halen and Whitesnake had a different scent than Dokken. It was a material experience through and through, from the grooves to the jackets and liners—the smells and bells of rock n’ roll.

This past week I read an interesting article in the New York Times about Napster. It was one of those “remember when” type of articles that focused on those influential, but short lived, moments in popular culture. Napster was the beginning of the end for the smells and bells. No longer did I get to smell my music, I didn’t even have to buy it. I just “borrowed” it from someone else. Napster didn’t last too long, but it opened up a movement that lives on in Spotify. We don’t have to pay for our music anymore, we just need an internet connection, an iPod or computer, and hit play. I’m sure there are many who look back on the days of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs and laugh. Pay for our music? No way. And yet…we seem to have lost something. The democratizing power of the internet may make for excellent tv, but it has also led to over saturation and mediocrity. Everyone’s a rock star…and in the words of that great film The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then no one is special.

A fiends posted something interesting on Facebook recently—a lament. He is sad that he can’t give music to friends and loved ones as a gift. It’s all free…it’s all streaming. No need to wrap it up and stick it under the tree. And yet…there seems to be a move back to vinyl. Last summer I was in a music shop in Kansas City where I noticed that Led Zeppelin has reissued their music…on vinyl. There it was, a big square record of some of the greatest music ever produced. How I wanted to buy it, rip open the thin plastic, pull out the big black circle, and take a whiff…to smell Led Zeppelin again. But I didn’t. It’s not that I couldn’t have, I have two record players. It’s just that they were $20…and I have most of the songs loaded up on my iphone. I guess I’ll have to wait for a scratch and sniff iPhone that reminds us of a time when music was a material multi sensory experience.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

One Comment

  • I really like how you expressed your feelings in this sweet little article. It reminds me of my grandmother. She was a great vinyl lover. I can remember clearly how she used to open the covers and smelled them though they were not new. We used to laugh at her then. But now I understand what this means to her and to you too. As a grown up, I start realizing how much you love the system you grown up with and want it back in your life. But, yes, we are growing lazy. We always morn on those days but do not want to have the chances. Latest technologies have made our inner soul openned for limited easy services only. We deprive our iternity to have those old, beautiful and soothing experience just because we are too lazy now.

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