I didn’t think that compact discs were such an outdated format that they’d be the subject of a nostalgic Facebook meme like the one you see below.
But I guess it makes sense. I actually own a portable CD collection case exactly like the one pictured, but it’s been in storage for years. Today’s digital music is absolutely more convenient.
I always thought of CD’s as a 90’s phenomenon, but I was surprised to learn that they’re definitely an 80’s technology. The first CD released commercially, according to this Internet thingamijiggy, was Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” waaaaaay back in 1982. (For a little perspective, that was the album that featured oldies like”Big Shot” and “My Life.”) But that was released in tech-savvy Japan — the first CD released commercially in America was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984.
They didn’t sell so hot right away. They were far more expensive than cassette tapes, which peaked in sales in the late 80’s, and a lot of people weren’t sure the medium would take off.
I myself first laid eyes on one at a party during my last year at Longwood High School, in the spring of 1990; it was a gift from one guy to the classmate whose birthday we were celebrating. Then I remember seeing CD’s in stores, sold in a separate section from tapes. The packaging was weird. They came in slim, 12-inch “longboxes” like those you see in the second picture. I always thought manufacturers did that to make the product visually seem larger, like LP’s — but apparently the stores just preferred that packaging since the boxes could fit in the same racks used to sell records.
It was only at the start my sophomore year at Mary Washington College when it seemed like a lot of my friends owned them. My roommate had a 5-disc CD player in which you inserted the discs onto a turntable the size of a record player — the “random play” function would select from those five discs, and I remember thinking that was pretty damned elaborate technology.
The discs themselves had a slight mystique. They were shiny. The bottoms were … lasery and kind of iridescent. They just looked … high-tech and a pretty fancy, compared to the beige or white plastic cassettes every kid remembered since early childhood. (I myself can actually remember my parents having 8-track tapes when I was a tiny tot, but those weren’t something that belonged to me.)
CD’s really were the first computerized format for music. Hell, we were still watching movies on VHS tapes back then. (Except for that one weird time when a hardcore collector in my dorm was showing off a rare, LP-sized video “laserdisc” of “The Monkees.”) And again, CD’s predecessors were ordinary tapes.
At first, college kids occasionally erred a little too far on the side of caution in caring for CD’s … Yes, they would skip or break if they were scratched or if they accumulated dust. That indeed sucked when it happened. But a few kids treated them as though they were made of priceless, eggshell-thin medieval spun glass — as though they would be rendered useless even if a single hair fell across them.
And one student I knew got CD care entirely backwards … he kept advising everyone that it was the top of the disc — with the artwork, band name and songlist — that actually contained the readable music, and not the shiny bottom. (Retrospect suggests he might have been high.)
I owned only a couple of discs at first — I remember having Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Ravel’s “Bolero” and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” I also was the owner of … God help me … “I’m Breathless,” Madonna’s tribute to the bizarre 1990 “Dick Tracy” feature film in which she starred. (I was *19,* okay?! I didn’t know what good music was yet!!) I also routinely borrowed my mother’s “Glory” (1989) soundtrack; I remember loving that during the summer of 1992. Hot damn if James Horner didn’t sound fantastic on compact disc, especially when I was stuck at home on a sweltering summer night in a new small town in Virginia.
I did like more mainstream music … but I continued to listen to my U2, Depeche Mode and Def Leppard on tape. My tapes still worked just fine, and CD’s were more expensive for a college kid.
Mp3’s eventually arrived, of course. I was very, very late to the party, as I always am with cool things. I stuck with my CD case; the idea of “downloading music” seemed oppressively techy to me. (Would I have to know code? Would I have to type stuff?) My first mp3 player was a gift — it came with a personal (and punk-heavy) music selection already on it. My subsequent iPod broke disappointingly early. Do those damn things just stop working as some kind of variation of planned obsolescence? Because their shelf-life sucks, and it makes it ironic that people worried so much 25 years ago about their CD’s being scratched.
There is a larger point that I am trying to make here … I feel like we really did lose something in the switch from disc to digital. Look at that case in the meme below. That’s … a music collection. You could hold it. You could organize it with your hands, and then hand it to the person next to you as sort of a document of your aesthetic personality. If you’re at home and your CD’s were in their cases, you could examine the cover art.
Or, if you were dating someone new, in that getting-to-know-you stage, there was a subtle ritual in which you examined each other’s music collection. It was a conversation starter, or maybe even a handy icebreaker when she first saw your place.
Digital music doesn’t do that for us. I don’t think I know anyone who has ever handed over a palm-sized gadget to a new friend or sweetheart, and asked them to scroll through the song list to “see what I’m into.” And … you just don’t get the same sense of “having” the music, or owning it. The different feel of digital is further increased if you can purchase individual songs … the entire concept of “having an album” is just different.
But I’m just bitching here. I probably sound like one of those overly nostalgic post-40 guys who used to lament the passing of LP’s.
Hey, you kids … GET OFF MY LAWN.