Learning out Loud in Milwaukee, WI

Analog media is for the children

We recently set up our record player in our living room. It had been connected into the whole house speaker system but we found we simply weren’t listening to records due to the cumbersome nature of that setup. We picked up a couple records at Rushmor on Record Store Day this year and took the opportunity to fix that problem.

László was particularly into the record player if not exactly the records we were playing. He was bummed there weren’t any Muppets records on offer for RSD and honestly me too. He somehow remembered that we have a “Miss Piggy exercise record” so we dug out that and a handful others we bought mostly before he was born including a 1970 Sesame Street album with a book and poster inside. This LP, critically, features Bein’ Green by Kermit the Frog, and I had to pinky promise I was serious that we would hear Kermit’s voice in our house.

He has no trouble shouting at Siri and demanding whatever song he wants to hear at any given moment. Often when he doesn’t get the song he wants, even if it’s close, he gets really upset with the HomePod Mini as if it were a personal affront. (Which, like, yeah, I’m right there with him.) Yet this other machine that delays that gratification for about 20 minutes has almost the opposite effect.

In fact, there’s a lot stacked against this LP: It’s in good condition but has it’s flaws. Sesame Street in 2024 is very different from 54 years ago, and many of the characters in today’s Sesame Street were yet born when this album was created. Top that all off with a machine that is difficult to operate, and I was expecting a lot to overcome. To my delight and surprise, the kid has become a student and devotee of “his records.”

I think about the activity of engaging the physical media and imagine it activates his mind, primes him for the experience. He invites all the characters on the cover and the ones he hears on the record into his world. He opens the book and scatters the contents of the gatefold jacket across living room, interacting with the poster and characters while he listens. He can’t yet read but he follows along with the pages, examining each picture, imagining himself eating cookies with Cookie or bathing like Ernie, and committing each song’s lyrics to memory.

You don’t get that effect with on-demand media like Apple Music, Spotify, no matter how cool Apple and the artists make their animated album artwork. You get closer with something like a Tonie box, but it’s a half measure. You have physical objects to keep track of and collect, but without the interactivity of resetting the record or winding a tape. You attach the Tonie and walk away.

I have had a long fascination with physical and analog media. I wrote a way-too-long paper about physical media, digital copyright, and collection when I was an undergrad, and might have dedicated an academic career to it in another life. I was particularly moved by Baudrillard’s “A Marginal System: Collecting,” and the puzzle of the relatively new (to consumers) idea of digital objects.

The argument I’m sure I thought I made was that digital objects are so abstracted from their function and physical from that we needed to find better ways to understand how humans make meaning from them. We cannot possess a digital object because it is so infinitely copyable that it is at once ephemeral and immortal. When we ruin or lose a cherished musical recording like an LP it’s emotional. When Spotify or Apple Music loses the right to offer a favorite song, is there even anything to grieve?

I never went on to get a PhD to stake out my claim on this idea, but I still feel the first principles behind it in my bones. I saw it pretty clearly recently when László put his first scratch in a record. I taught him how to change records on his own and we all got a little too comfortable with our confidence in that one lesson. He tried to put on a record and slid it right under the needle on its way to the platter, and a huge gash is now forever carved right across “J – Jump” on side B.

I’ve seen him get upset about a track not being available on Apple Music when we’re pretty sure it was before. But I’ve never seen anything like this. He was beside himself. Blaming himself and truly going through the stages of grief before he could calm down and recover. There was a real personal element to his attachment to that record, ownership of his ability to play it, and the tiny destructive act ripped that victory from his hands.

Part of how we calmed him down was to explore all the ways the scratched version could continue to bring him joy: You can frame the album or the poster tucked inside, and you can still read the book tucked inside. Heck, he can still play all the other songs on the record, so it could have been a lot worse. We also promised to find another copy as soon as we could and have a lot of fun listening to it once we did.

This whole incident is juxtaposed sharply with the reaction to the disappearance of a favorite song from a streaming service. Some of the tracks available on Apple Music from, for example, The Muppets (2008) soundtrack, have changed over time. That disappearance has been a lot less emotionally consequential in our house because they never really existed in the first place. A streaming service is a kind of Schrödinger’s Jukebox: All the music you want to hear is either always ready to play or it never existed, you won’t know for sure until you trick Siri into playing it.

Though if those monsters ever take the Captain Underpants First Epic Movie offline, heads will roll. Mark my words.