Where does music come from?
When I was a newly minted teenager, on occasion my friends and I would be accorded the freedom to walk downtown after school. It was about five blocks from Central Junior High to the Iowa City business district. Our destination, after some sort of junk food binge, was BJ Records.
One flight up from the street, BJ Records was a mecca. The carpeted floor offered bins with wooden sides that rose to waist-height. Organized by genre and then alphabetically by musical group were twelve-inch square cardboard sleeves holding the vinyl disks that told the stories of our loves and losses. Buzzing from sugary treats, we considered the contents of the bins, flipping through the records: got it, got it, got it, yuck, ooooh, new one. We admired the art, read with interest the song titles on the back, and could, in a financial pinch, settle for the forty-five from the singles hung in wire baskets on the wall.
Our record collections were statements about who we were. Invite over a new friend and she would automatically flip through the records, carefully arranged in a plastic milk crate tipped on one side. What do you want to listen to? Guest’s choice. She’d hand me a record and I would tip the album cover to slide out the disk, sheathed in a paper sleeve. I touched only the edges of the record as I extracted it from its sleeve, especially prized if all of the lyrics were printed on it. Then, with my longest finger supporting the disk at the hole in the middle and balancing the rim against my thumb, I’d use a velvet brush to remove invisible lint and place the record carefully onto the turntable. The needle would slide into the outermost groove and our selected sounds would arrive in my room. Twenty or twenty-five minutes later, we’d flip the record to play the other side. The experience was a tactile and aural delight.
Vinyl records may be found in my basement still, along with a real typewriter. It’s nearly impossible to purchase a ribbon for the typewriter, and I have nothing to play my records on. There’s a phone down there, too; one with a curly cord attaching the speaker and mouthpiece to the base and a round plastic dial into which you fit your fingers and draw the numbers around in a circle to place a call. My children have toyed with the typewriter, but they go to the computer to do their homework. Although we do still have a landline, in the house there is not a single phone with a cord connecting base to handset.
My first phone in my room was avocado green. I talked on it for hours lying on my bed, wrapped in its cord, listening to my clock radio and dreaming of the records I would buy next. These tools were freedoms, portals to the world at large where I was itching to live. The typewriter on my desk often beckoned, with high school assignments that required typing, but even that offered a kind of transport because I had to be where it was to do my homework—that allowed retreat to my room.
My son, who recently ascended to Fourteen, got a computer for his birthday. It’s a tiny laptop—and we all know the story. That eleven-inch wonder-machine weighing just a little over two pounds is more portal to the universe than my teenaged self could have ever imagined. Even his cell phone does more and more quickly than my manual typewriter and slimline phone could have done if I could have figured out a way to harness them together. Want to listen to music? It’s on the computer, can be pushed through a cloud to your phone, and it’s always just a click or a scroll away.
As much as I may be nostalgic about the technology I grew up with, I’m a big fan of modern convenience. I tease Fourteen that I’m a better teenager than he is because I text with friends continuously. As a result, my cell phone is never far from reach and now it integrates seamlessly with the car I’ve been driving for about two weeks, turning it into a moving hands-free phone booth. If I’m not on the phone, I can navigate through songs on my ipod, plugged into the car, with controls on the steering wheel. Most of the music you’ll find in my playlists, though, are digital releases from those same records we used to go to BJs to long for after school.
One day recently Ten and I were waiting for her school bus in the car, dialing through songs while text messages were hitting my phone. Ten said, “Mommy, if I’m a zero teen and [my brother] is a true teenager, what are you?”
“I’m a, I don’t know, I guess I’m a retro teen.” I had to explain retro to her then, but we started laughing once she understood. It felt like a good fit.
And it still does. The last time in my life I felt a similar sense of opening even as I was constrained by the confines of family life on a farm and 1980s technology, I was truly a teenager. Although I often feel today as though I’m scrambling to keep up with the speed at which technology changes, I enjoy the perks, the connectivity, and the instant gratification of downloading a song I want to hear right at that moment. I can no more imagine today than I could thirty years ago what the next twists and turns may bring. I am sometimes torn—my teen and teenager-to-be need a mother who is rooted and wise, not prone to staying out too late and listening to music too loud—but as a retro teen I seem to find time for both and, mostly, harmony between the two.
Lodged between the new flower moon and mother’s day, this comes to you with a happy wish for a glorious weekend, whatever age you wish to be (or act). Namaste & love, Rxo