Guest Post by Rachel Rogers:
When I was fifteen years old, my family and I took a vacation to Florida. During our stay, my favorite artist put out a new album. Back then (it was January of 1996) an album’s release day was a heavily anticipated event. With no iTunes, no Spotify, no NPR First Listen, those Tuesdays were like holidays. You headed to the record store with bated breath, just hoping that the music you were about to consume did not let you down in some way — that it was as good as the previous album that had touched you so deeply.
I realize after writing the above piece of narration, that those feelings of anticipation probably were not experienced by everyone, or even nearly everyone. I forget sometimes that I belong to a particular subset of people who live and breathe music. I always have. For me, music has served as a both an escape and conduit for connection. From the time I was eleven or twelve music has been a passion for me and for my dearest friends. I had a hard time relating to people who did not make music a priority, and I’ll say that even now, in my mid-thirties, I still feel disheartened or even confused when I discover that someone I care about does not make finding and spending time with music a priority. Music and the community around music (I went to a university with a thriving music business program, so many if not most of my friends since that time have been musicians) has been one of my most sacred tethers to this world. I invest a lot of time and (admittedly) money on this love, and have since I was kid.
So that can take us back to the story.
On that trip to Florida in 1996, I demanded that my parents make a stop at a local shopping mall so that I could buy the album mentioned earlier (Boys for Pele by Tori Amos). When we arrived at our hotel room, I climbed got into the top bunk bed, and with the lights off and my headphones on, I began to listen. I don’t remember what particular emotions or thoughts I had while giving that album a first listen. I’m sure there were some tears, as beautiful music has always had that effect on me, and I am nothing if not an easy crier. I am also sure there was embarrassment or even discomfort, as she was singing about things that I had not considered or been exposed to. What I do remember is that I listened to that entire album with intention. I waited for that CD… I counted down the days until its release, and once it was in my possession, I consumed it with quiet attention. That was my way back then, of receiving — everything else shut down, headphones on, listening.
This was not the only time I listened in this way. I remember other albums in high school and college which demanded my full attention immediately. I began seriously collecting vinyl in my early twenties, so my ritual changed a bit. I remember a few particular times in my early twenties where I purchased the album, took it home, removed the shrink wrap, placed it on the turntable, sat on the floor right in front of the stereo and listened, only pausing to flip the record and continue the journey.
What resulted from this intentional listening was that I got to know not only the songs on those albums that would become my “favorites,” but I also became intimate with the complete vision the artist had for the record. Song order is important. Some albums are actually telling a story, other, more pop-driven artists are strategically placing the singles throughout the track list to keep you listening while other songs seem like throw-aways. There can be an arc to the mood of the album, or even a hidden track which you only become aware of if you listen to the album through to its end. Listening to an album in its entirety is not just about being entertained — it is about appreciation, about being moved, even about learning something. It is about slowing down to appreciate someone’s art and really listen to what they have to say.
These days, I still religiously buy vinyl. I still have a very meticulous (admittedly nerdy) practice around unwrapping, cataloguing, and shelving my records. Things are different, though. Of course they are. They are different because a week or two before an album’s release I can listen to a few tracks on a streaming site somewhere. They are different because I spend my weekdays at a desk with headphones on, and I can pull up any album I want on Spotify. They are different because we can buy single songs so easily from iTunes and make playlists. It is much easier to consume music in a piecemeal fashion now, and as an adult with a full life, much harder to find the time to sit down, headphones on, to listen to an album track by track. I sometimes listen to a record three or four times in the background while working, cleaning, or cooking dinner before I stop for a moment and think, “I really need to pay attention to this.” I might give an album a few free listens on a digital service before deciding to purchase the album and truly invest in it.
I suppose what is important, though, is that I still do take the time to listen. I still value that practice. I believe in an even more fleshed-out way than I did as a teenager, that music has the power to enrich our lives and connect us to each other unlike much else in this world. I suppose, just like anything else of value, though, that we still need to be reminded from time to time to slow down and pay attention. It is unlikely that after making that choice we will ever be anything other than better for it.
Question: What was the last album you listened to in one sitting?