The End of Musical Memory

Over on Good Letters, Joel Hartse touches on something that has been on my mind lately:

I swore I wouldn’t become the curmudgeon complaining about format changes in music — I was all for CDs replacing cassettes — and actually, I like that I store my entire record collection electronically in a plastic box the size of a Bible, and listen to any song I want without having to spend ten minutes looking for a CD.

But I do regret the musical amnesia I am starting to develop about my favorite new recordings, how divorced the music is from the lifeworld I used to inhabit, how the story behind nearly every album I have fallen in love with in the past five years is not ​“My friend told me about this while we were at dinner” or even ​“I heard this on the radio and then bought it at the record store on the way home from work,” but ​“somebody emailed me a .zip file encoded with this music.”


I don’t think music has to be encoded on a physical product in order to be meaningful — however material it may technically be, sound is not exactly tangible — but pop music lately feels like it has less weight and heft than at any other time I can remember. Not because it’s ​“worse” in a lamenting-the-vacuous-top-40 sense, but because I can’t seem to locate my own stories in it the way I used to.

Related: Why I still buy CDs