I was eleven when I moved from San Diego to Yorktown, Virginia. It must have taken my family’s Aerostar minivan five days to make the trip, a drive I would make today if you gave me one hour of preparation and an absolute promise that I would shirk nary a responsibility. (That’s right: nary.)
I had a chunky Walkman, a basket full of shared family headphones (most of which required a constantly crooked finger to bend the wires if you wanted sound to come to both ears), and four tapes that were mine and only mine:
- Boyz II Men, Cooleyhighharmony
- Mariah Carey, MTV Unplugged
- Hammer, [some cassette single from the 2 Legit 2 Quit album]
- Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” cassette single
Imagine that: five days of these four tapes, heard over and over. By the end, I could sing every note of them–not that I would, there in the van, moodily quiet, hunched away from my three siblings in my own corner with my headphones and Garfield comics. But I knew those sounds. I knew them.
Yesterday, I put in Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut album to encourage me to do dishes, the thick guitars lushly tempting me to be responsible even when my wife is out of town.
I’ve always loved this album, but it’s not like it was one of my absolute favorites. I was too busy studying every second of Smashing Pumpkin CDs to really give Hum the attention they deserved, back in 1995.
But listening yesterday, I was surprised to hear that I knew the lyrics and musical turns better than I thought I would. When I listen to albums I’ve gotten in the last few years that I like with about the same level of fervor (“Hey, that’s great! I’ll listen every once in a while!” as opposed to “OMG DROOL”), I find they don’t work the same way on me as Hum did last night. That is, I can’t sing along very well when I listen to The National or School of Seven Bells, but I like having them on. But hearing Hum was really personal and intense and I sang and sang.
In that minivan, and listening to CDs in high school, I simply didn’t have as much media as I have today. Then, I listened to all my tapes and CDs, even the ones I didn’t like as much, because I didn’t have as many. And through repeated listenings, I got to know them in better, deeper ways than I could possibly have done without the experience of extended time spent with those sounds.
Because musical first impressions are so often wrong, aren’t they? The first time I sat down and listened to the Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, reading every lyric along with the music, I thought “Love” was going to be my favorite song. The spacey guitars, the newness of its sounds to me, grabbed my ears. But before long, through repeated listenings, it grew to be one of my least favorite, without the lyrical and structural complexity that went into so many other songs on that album.
So I’ll go out and say it: I’m worried about what I’ll miss as I increasingly have options. As I fill up my harddrive with free tracks from NoiseTrade. As I browsebrowsebrowse on Spotify. As I stream from Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, Vudu. As I download free book after free book to my Kindle.
And as much as I hate it when people say things like this, I’ll even take that next step, from the individual to the social: I’m worried about what will happen in society, too.
Once you start thinking about your life’s media scarcity, you quickly begin distrusting your ideas about quality.
Why do I think Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are as good as Empire Strikes Back, while everyone else seems to think Empire is best? Because I had taped-from-TV copies of SW and RotJ at home while growing up, but not ESB. In the context of VHS scarcity, I watched what I had, over and over and over. And what I watched, I loved.
Why do I love the scene in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam pass the crossroads? Doesn’t it have something to do with the paperback I found on my Dad’s shelf in 6th grade, which I read even without ever having read Fellowship, looking at the cover over and over, which shows them passing that beheaded statue under a vanilla sky?
Why do I love playing Dr. Mario so much? Because it’s such an inherently good game? Because it’s natural to enjoy something you’re good at? Or because my parents, on a whim, bought it for me for a birthday present in 4th grade, which led to hours and hours of playing it, because it was one of just a few games I had?
Why did I read Judy Blume’s Superfudge so many times? Because I identified with the mixed emotions of love and annoyance Peter has about his talkative, bizarre younger brother, something I understood completely? Or because there were only so many books on my shelf, so I just kept on reading them repeatedly?
And even though my thoughts about scarcity always begin here, with white American middle-class media consumption, don’t the cultural effects of scarcity go further?
Is it unfeeling and rude to gently compare my version of scarcity with the scarcity of the worldwide poor–that experience so many report of meeting those living in rusted shacks who nevertheless tell stories of joy that exceed the lifeless, media-saturated lives of rich Westerners?
Don’t hear that the wrong way: I don’t want to romanticize the poor or in any way imply that they should stay poor. But I’ve met families living in the garbage villages of Cairo whose daily faith and joy surely seemed to exceed my own. Were those attitudes related to scarcity?
If so, what other attitudes are tied to scarcity, in all its incarnations?