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