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Liner Note Nostalgia And Music Consumption Now

Ben found this CD, Soul Asylum's "Grave Dancers Union," from 1992, in WBUR behind the studio. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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Five days had passed and the new album I wanted to hear still wasn’t on Spotify. Fine. So I bought it on iTunes. It was as I was syncing the 12 tracks to my phone that I thought back: Remember how you used to get an album?

Up came those notes of nostalgia, rising.

Sitting in the back of my mom’s car after a trip to Strawberries, performing careful surgery on a CD to remove the layers of stickers and plastic wrapping. Then I thought of other, older forms of music around the house too: tapes lined up in a gray shoebox; a record collection in the creaky dry sink in the kitchen.

But I was thinking mainly of the ‘90s rock I favored in my preteen years — the age, I suppose, when I decided: That’s my music. I recall watching MTV after school in my friend Tommy’s den, waiting for my favorite videos to come on. (I still — and surely always will — get jacked when I hear the opening BAM of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”)

Those years were the tail-end of the transition from tapes to CDs, and I can remember many of the CD covers clearly: the cartoonish Green Day “Dookie,” the tranquil starriness of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” and, most vividly to me, the disarming boy wearing a cape on Rage Against the Machine’s “Evil Empire.”

I remember flipping through my CDs’ liner notes, devouring lyrics, studying the grainy, artistic photos, and trying to decipher the meaning of the incoherent flotsam that so often fills up such booklets. And I remember my surprise, while reading the notes in Beck’s “Odelay,” at learning how many instruments one musician could play.

Recalling my musical history like this, I can trace the evolution of my preferences, from ‘90s rock, to southern rock and singer/songwriters, to my current country and Americana. I enjoy such trips back because they remind me how much I love music.

But here’s the question I posed to myself (and obviously this is putting aside the debate about how musicians get paid today): Was my love of music deepened because early on I often read and watched as I listened? As someone who learns best visually, did my leafing through liner notes, for instance, provide a potent visual complement to auditory consumption?

Perhaps everyone remembers the music of their formative years so clearly. Personally, I just know my recent iTunes purchase came with a digital booklet that I haven’t looked at, and I wonder about how I might form similarly strong initial attachments to music today.

Now, longing for certain aspects of older forms of media is a well-worn genre. But it’s not like I live in the past or want to go back there: Now that their songs are on my computer, all of my CDs are (I think) in the attic of my mom’s house, and I fully appreciate how, with my Spotify subscription or YouTube, I can discover new songs, or cue up an old one that pops in my head, on demand.

(Isn’t it ironic, by the way, how good a companion the Internet is during a trip down a nostalgia rabbit hole? Relatedly, thank you to the person who uploaded Soul Coughing’s “Super Bon Bon” to YouTube.)

Anyway, don’t confuse my ponderings as a “think of the children!” warning. They’re just a recognition of a change in consumption habits, and a thought experiment of how I would engage so deeply with music if I were growing up now.

These days, a friend wouldn’t loan me a CD. He’d text me a link and I’d listen with my earbuds on, and maybe Google image search the artist, and maybe follow them on Twitter. I assume, despite any doubts, my music would have the same impact on me, and in 20 years I’d recall that band, that feeling and how their song’s artwork looked on my phone.

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