• March 11, 2021 |

    vinyl and the pandemic

    learning how to listen again in a quieter world

    article by , illustrated by

    Putting a record on is a ritual: I sit on the floor in front of my turntable, plug it in, and turn the main dial until I feel a “click.” A red light appears, and I hear a small hum.

    Next, I take out whatever I’m going to play. The liner paper crinkles when I pull the record out of its sleeve, and I hold the vinyl up to the light, looking over its ridges for specks of dust. If it’s dirty, I’ll spray some citrus-scented cleaner fluid on it and wipe with one of those overpriced microfiber cloths. I put the record on the pad, trying to touch only its edges.

    The next moment, when I put the needle down, is my favorite part. I listen for pops and crackles and wait for the disc to gently dip and then readjust. Sometimes I’ll lay down and close my eyes to listen. Otherwise, I’ll sit cross-legged on the floor and watch the record spin around and around, like when I’d sit in front of the dryer as a little kid, hearing it hum and watching the clothes tumble. It’s hypnotic, perfect for those days in quarantine that seem to repeat themselves over and over and over.

    Before the pandemic, I hadn’t listened to a record in a few years. Back in middle school, though, I’d perform this ritual almost every day, summoning as much pretentious seriousness as I could muster. I would spend hours laying on the floor in my bedroom playing David Bowie. His lyrics about aliens and the end of the world appealed to me as an angsty, out-of-place pre-teen—life on Mars sounded great if it meant getting away from my parents and meeting the cyborg version of Dan, my crush who barely knew my name. And as a self-satisfied music snob, I wanted to understand each lyric as deeply as I could. I read all of the liner notes and listened for every pop, skip, and crackle.  

    Then high school started, and homework, sports, and ACTs got in the way. My records stayed on the shelf, and my turntable got dusty. When I moved across the country for college, I left it at home and got a Spotify account. Now that I could play almost anything with a quick tap on my iPhone, music demanded less effort and came with less meaning. Phoebe Bridgers and Oliver Koletzki were demoted to background noise for me to tune in and out of throughout my day. Bowie sang about the apocalypse while I did laundry, washed my hair, or played through lecture recordings on double speed, feeling nothing. I heard the music, but I didn’t really listen.

    But then the pandemic happened, and there were no more classes to sit through, club meetings to go to, or people to see. I flew home to San Francisco and spent most days alone in my childhood bedroom. I rediscovered the things I’d left behind—old books, journals, and stuffed animals. One day, I pulled my turntable out from its hiding place at the back of my closet and sifted through my old records, their outer sleeves still covered in the doodles I’d drawn as a thirteen-year-old. I picked out a Madonna album and dropped the needle. 

    My world had gotten quiet, so I was able to listen again. Vinyl matched my new, slower pace of life, where I had time to flip through my records before deciding what to play and to actually listen to an album from start to finish. It also gave me a much-needed break from screens. Sometimes, after hours of Zoom calls hunched at the kitchen table, I’d lay in the same spot on my floor from years earlier, stretching my back out against the carpet and resting my eyes.

    I kept this routine up for the first few months of the pandemic. Then, I left my parents’ house in San Francisco and moved to Austin at the end of August. I brought my turntable with me this time, along with the artists I used to listen to. They’ve since become a regular part of my day again. 

    Bowie’s apocalyptic themes appeal to me now because the world actually feels like it’s ending, not because I’m an angsty teenager. And now that I live alone, I don’t have to fantasize about escaping from under my parents’ roof by blasting off into outer space. But when it comes to love, his lyrics feel even more relevant during the pandemic than they did when I was drawing hearts around Dan’s name in my sixth-grade folders. Bowie sings about how the end of the world affects our relationships, quipping that once civilization rebuilds itself, we’ll have completely forgotten how to be intimate with one another.  

    I think about Bowie’s lyrics a lot when I go on dating apps now, or when I consider what dating will be like after the pandemic. As a generation that is already totally consumed by technology, sometimes interacting more virtually than in person, are we now completely screwed? I play his records and wonder what it will feel like when I can make eyes at a stranger at a bar without guessing what their mouth looks like under their mask, or enjoy live music on a date again. Sometimes it’s too much for me to think about, and I need to put Madonna back on instead. 

    Bowie’s records provide comfort, too, though. When I pull out my copies from middle school, I go back to a time when, even though my feelings went unrequited, liking someone still felt possible. Love was terrifying, but in an insecure, thirteen-year-old kind of way, not a life-threatening one. This music seems made for the pandemic, but it also reminds me that things weren’t always this way, and they won’t stay this way either.

    As much as rediscovering the records I used to listen to has helped me through this crazy time, finding new vinyl has, too. Since coming to Austin, listening to LPs from local bands has given me a way to get to know my new city. I knew that moving here in the middle of the pandemic meant I wouldn’t be experiencing the “live music capital of the world” at its fullest. Still, I feel connected to the city’s musical heritage each time I walk down the street to Waterloo Records and buy an album from an Austin-based artist. It also gives me an excuse to leave the house in a time when the most exciting part of my week is usually a trip to the grocery store. 

    When I get home from the record store and play “Colors” by Black Pumas or “See You Later Simulator” from Ghostland Observatory, I often imagine how it’ll feel to see these groups perform once the pandemic ends; it gives me something to look forward to. And every album cover, lyric, and shade of colored vinyl helps me to understand Austin a little better and to feel like I might have a place in it. 

    Right now, records don’t just connect me with my city and the outside world; they also bring another presence into my house. John Peel, the longest serving DJ for the BBC, once said, “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen mate, life has surface noise.’” Through stay-at-home orders and shutdowns, we’ve lost so much of life’s surface noise: an overheard conversation between two strangers at a coffee shop, the traffic noises on a morning commute to work, coughs and frantic typing in a crowded library, feet shuffling in and out of a workout studio. Things have gone quiet, as we experience a flattened version of life through our screens. 

    The hums, crackles, and pops I hear when I put that needle down give me back some of that surface noise. In a time when so many of our experiences have been reduced to virtual facsimiles of what they once were, vinyl has the opposite effect. It inspires me to not just hear, but to listen, as it fills my quiet bedroom with a vibrant buzz that helps me remember the way things were before.