What pop culture are you hanging onto even though it’s in an essentially obsolete format?
I recently cleaned out a closet and realized I still had 50 or so albums on cassette. Most of it was stuff I’ve since bought on CD and could get rid of, but I hung onto a lot of irreplaceable small-press or self-released music from my teen and college years, things with sentimental value: a couple of albums self-released by a local singer-songwriter I liked in college, for instance, and a small-press album of Rudyard Kipling poems set to music. (The same artist has done other Kipling albums, but the one I kept has never been on CD.) I also hung onto the Dark Crystal soundtrack, which just doesn’t seem worth paying to replace. We also still have literally hundreds of VHS and Beta cassettes, which we never watch—why would we? The image quality seems so primitive and shaky these days—but apparently can’t let go of. Don’t ask me why, ask my pack-rat boyfriend, who likes to buy things ultra-cheap in the remainder bins at video stores, and consequently has a vast collection of VHSes, many of which are still in the original shrink-wrap. Because we totally want to watch JFK again someday, and on two shrink-wrapped videocassettes at that. I’m sure we’ll get around to Ken Burns’ Jazz (on 10 VHS tapes!) any day now too.
I have a box of triple-obsoleteness in my basement: a Marshall Fields box containing a Harold Baines folder that I found in an alley, plus my collection of mix-tapes. I actually pried the box open a few weeks ago to listen to two of the tapes for a project I’m working on. I forgot how much work went into making mix-tapes, the stopping and starting and rewinding and piles of tapes and sleeve-making—those were much bigger labors of love than mix CDs are today. I’ve been thinking I might transfer my mix-tapes to CD, not for my own sake, but to give to the friends who originally made them for me as presents.
I purged most of my once-sizable VHS collection years ago. The appearance of Twin Peaks and Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse on DVD made the last of my videotape collection irrelevant. But I’ve got a few items I still hold onto, including a pair of Late Night With David Letterman anniversary specials from the ’80s, some Chris Elliott cable specials that I don’t think ever appeared on DVD, the truly great, never-on-DVD H.G. Wells adaptation Island Of Lost Souls, and a Leonard Nimoy-hosted guide to surviving Y2K. Because you can never be too careful about that.
I have a ton of cassettes, both because I can’t bring myself to get rid of mix tapes and because of the whole cassette resurgence of recent years. VHS is a little more dicey, especially because I don’t actually have a VCR. I know for a fact, though, that somewhere, I have several orange Nickelodeon VHS tapes of Clarissa Explains It All and The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, plus a copy of the Baby-Sitters Club movie in one of those huge plastic clamshell boxes. I also have a recording of the episode of MTV News Unfiltered I appeared on in 1995 that I should really get made into a DVD sometime soon. VHS doesn’t last forever, right?
I’m a big Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, but I missed all of the pre-SCI FI Channel seasons of the show when they aired. Comedy Central wasn’t available on our cable provider, so for years, I’d hear about the series, or see clips of it, but I had to wait for syndication before I could watch MST3K for myself. They used to run episodes after Saturday Night Live, and since eps ran two hours with commercials, that meant staying up till three in the morning which, weekend or not, was not something I was used to. So I tried to tape the reruns when I could, and then, when the series moved to Sci-Fi, I kept taping, because I realized I enjoyed the eps the most on the re-watch (or the re-re-watch). I’ve still got probably a dozen of those tapes in crates in my room at home, even though I haven’t hooked my VCR up to a television in years. Many of the tapes have already been duplicated on DVD, and a third of them don’t even play properly; the recorder I used wasn’t all that great, so the picture rolls on some eps for half an hour to a full hour of tape. (I found that sometimes, when I fast-forwarded to a point in the tape where it wasn’t rolling, then rewound while still playing the tape, I could fix this. I’m still not sure how it worked, but I have a lot of frustrated memories of fast-forwarded and rewinding and staring at these horizontal bands of cycling color, like some kind of electronic waterfall, only it made me nauseated and wistful.) I also have some bootleg VHS tapes I bought online. Before Rhino came along and saved humanity, it was nearly impossible to get hold of earlier eps, and fans would sell copies on the cheap. I’ve watched every MST3K tape I own a dozen times over, at least, and they take up a lot of space, but I can’t see myself getting rid of them anytime soon.
I increasingly feel like all of my physical media is becoming obsolete. I’ve got a closet full of CDs that I almost never touch, because every bit of music on them—and more—is also on a tiny hard drive connected to my PlayStation 3. Speaking of the PS3, its ability to interface with Netflix Instant has pretty much led to me not purchasing new DVDs anymore. I just assume that most stuff will eventually be available to watch instantly. I even downgraded my Netflix plan to one disc per month. I do have a ton of DVDs that I burned of stuff from old VHS tapes that are just sitting there, too: old Smiths video bootlegs that I can probably find on YouTube now, and TV shows that the creators promised would never come out on DVD, but then they did. (I’m talking to you, TV Funhouse.) But the frequency with which I grab shiny little discs is shrinking. Vinyl, on the other hand, I tend to play more than ever. Go figure.
I’m a bit of a diehard where physical media is concerned—when y’all lose your entire music collection in a hard-drive crash, don’t come crying to me—in part because I don’t think artists and filmmakers spend countless emotional and physical resources generating work so we can experience the fruits of their labors in the most convenient, shittiest-looking and -sounding manner imaginable. If the future of recorded media is one in which the majority of consumers opt for easily accessible, marginally presentable formats—streaming movies, cloud drives and whatnot—and a small fraction of snooty gearheads hoard their Blu-rays, I know which side I’ll be on. In other words, you can have my VHS copies of Frederick Wiseman documentaries and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, my cassette-only album of Soft Boys outtakes, and my Super Audio CDs of the Rolling Stones catalogue and Dark Side Of The Moon (in surround sound!) when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.
Sometimes, it seems like I’m hanging onto more things on old media than I own on current, useful media. In the parlance of reality TV, this might make me a hoarder, but what am I going to do without my VHS tape of the seminal kids TV special Strong Kids, Safe Kids or a cassette of briefly popular ’80s Christian kids’ recording artist Rappin’ Rabbit? I spent much of college collecting this crap at the Goodwills and Catholic League thrift stores of our good nation. Why should I get rid of it now that it sits moldering in a box, just because I’m no longer as big of a fan of ironic appreciation of the terrible? One thing I do hang onto for genuine reasons is my collection of old computer games on 3.5- or 5.25-inch floppy discs. I spent a lot of time as a kid and teenager playing these things, and I still remember how much I enjoyed opening the box for my latest purchase and seeing all of the cool stuff spill out. Mountains of discs. A big, thick manual with lovely illustrations. Some sort of weird copy-protection device. And tons of other little gewgaws and gadgets, designed to make me feel like a real detective or Army commander or what-have-you. I still buy computer games every so often, but they never have the big, bulky boxes, nor all of the weird little stuff inside. Probably better for the environment, but this just means I have a closetful of games I can’t play, mostly for nostalgic reasons.
Computer emulation has made it relatively easy to play almost any decades-old videogame, but that hasn’t stopped me from holding on to my collection of 8-bit NES carts (around 400 at last count). Like purists of other media, I relish the tactile pleasures of the real deal, and insist that the magic of, oh, let’s say Battletoads or Mega Man 2, can only be properly experienced on an NES console hooked up to a wood-paneled TV from 1989. (I take my retro gaming to an unnerving extreme.) Silly as that may seem, it’s important to remember that emulated games are just that: simulated versions of the originals. And though the graphics are usually spot-on, the audio in these digital clones always seems a bit tinny and harsh. (Sound familiar?) Sure, you can download hundreds of NES games directly to your Wii, but consulting the original foldout maps for Final Fantasy while balancing a Nintendo Advantage on your knees is something emulation just can’t emulate. Plus, nothing dissuades a nasty smoking habit like having to perform the infamous “Nintendo blow” every time you want to play a lousy game of Excitebike.
I’m glad I’ve still hung on to actual physical print magazines from 2000-04, for several reasons. Harper’s is online, but accessing its archives can be expensive, and in any case, having the issue in which David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present” essay first appeared is a nice memento of the first thing of his I read. I’m also happy I still have a year’s cache of Magnet Magazine, the bimonthly indie rockin’ periodical whose archives (unless I’m missing something) still aren’t online. Among the things that amuse me in there: Stephin Merritt declaring Saint Etienne’s “Hug My Soul” the song he most wished he’d written from 1994-2003 (the magazine’s first decade) in a feature asking all sorts of random musicians the same question; The Strokes’ “guitar guru” JP Bowersock tartly informing an interviewer that any comparisons to Television are “bullshit”; a whole issue on rogue visionaries and eccentrics that includes an absolutely ludicrous photo of Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe glowering in front of a flaming ring, looking like the world’s least competent lion tamer. Not to mention the connotative pleasures of reading capsule reviews of then-obscure, now-forgotten bands that never made it.
It’s fitting that this should be published on the second Friday of the month, since that’s the night that I DJ (spin? spool?) actual cassette tapes at my favorite Los Angeles haunt, a closet-sized Silver Lake bar called the Hyperion Tavern. Believe it or not, I’m not alone in this. The monthly night—dubbed Top Tape—is run by the head of a fantastic contemporary cassette label called Leaving Records, and most of the dudes (yeah, all dudes) who participate are lesser-known up-and-comers in the L.A. electronic-music scene. Ironic, innit? I can’t say exactly why I started collecting cassettes again. I do a lot of thrifting, and I guess it began when I came across some orphaned Bell Biv DeVoe and Boyz II Men cassingles at an area Goodwill a couple of years ago. It pained me to see the music I came up on (I was born in ‘82) abandoned as such, so I picked ‘em up, and that kicked off the obsession. I tried to stick with New Jack Swing exclusively (Color Me Badd, Portrait, Ralph Tresvant), but last year, a neighbor about a decade older than me moved to New York and left his tapes behind. He had more than 500 of them, and now so do I. So once a month, I visit those handsome wooden racks and haphazardly choose 10 new ones to blend together into one warbly, genre-jumping, anachronistic musical mess.