I turn twenty-eight tomorrow, which means that I will have outlasted a number of noteworthy musicians and landed, finally and officially, in my late twenties. Maybe that doesn’t seem that old to you, or maybe it seems incredibly, unimaginably old. That’s the way I feel: I’m the age of the serious people on TV. It’s something I’ve never been before.
I’ve been a collector for most of my life. When I was a boy, I was obsessed with my books. Not with reading them, though I did enjoy that, so much as having them around me, possessing them. My nascent library filled a toy-chest. At night, I’d sleep with my books in my bed, jabbed by their corners when I’d roll over. Later, I’d collect baseball caps (a trip to Cooperstown when I was 8 jump-started that one pretty nicely), and later still, pogs. The caps I bought at the Hall of Fame were too large and flopped down over my brow, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually played a round of POGs–or if anyone has, for that matter. What was important was having them, and having as many of them as possible. But it was equally important to have the right ones. I disdained the no-name pogs purchased out of skating-rink vending machines, and the two-inch-thick slammers ribbed with cross-hatches (why? for grip?) that dented the entire stack. They didn’t fit in the carrying cases, they weren’t sanctioned. They felt out of step, and I somehow recognized that they were opportunistic junk, an attempt to cash in on something organic and cool that I’d read about in, probably, Disney Adventures.
My wife Rachelle and I have just moved to Chicago from New Orleans, a process which has highlighted the grosser aspects of our mutual collectivist urges. We live on the third floor of a three-flat, up a narrow set of winding stairs that the movers traversed while making the charming kind of jokes that aren’t really meant to be taken as jokes. In fact, we have an incredible amount of stuff, a truly American heft. Most of it, especially the heavy stuff, is mine. I unboxed my records yesterday, and while briefly considering filing them in autobiographical order, it struck me that I haven’t listened to at least a third of what I own, probably more.
I’m a music critic by trade, which means that I have far more music than I possibly know what to do with; it’s the whole reason I became a critic, getting free music. But now that everyone’s hard drives are overloaded with stuff they’ve never heard, and various services make tracking down just about anything I want to hear a snap, the concept of free stuff has lost its allure. What’s the point of having stuff if you’re not going to interact with it, and what’s the point of interacting with it if you’re not going to pay attention?
A few years back, A.V. Club writer Noel Murray quit listening to new music and devoted all of his critical time to the music sitting inert on his hard drive. It took him an entire year. Murray’s a gifted writer and thinker with an incredible collection and even more incredible discipline. In his opening essay, writing about a night he spent driving around with his windows down listening to Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash 101ers, he says “It was such a pleasant way to spend an evening, cranking up songs like ‘Letsagetabitarockin” and ‘Keys To Your Heart’ without worrying about any impending deadline to write about them, or whether a review of The 101ers would be picked at for being ‘too obvious’ or ‘too obscure.'”
At some point, the pleasure of mere accumulation begins to fade. The excitement of pursuit-for-pursuit’s sake turns into dumb habit, insensibly continued by force of momentum. Music–or books, or baseball caps, or even life experiences–become flinty and brittle when they’re sought after only for the sake of notching some belt you imagine everyone else to be wearing. That was the reason I started paying attention to music in the first place, in sixth grade: To keep up.
By my count, I own 261 vinyl records (not counting 7″ singles). Not a remarkable number compared to many of my peers, but presumably far more than the average 28-year-old in 2012. My hard drive is, at this point, probably a lost cause; it’d be foolish to think I’d ever make it through the entire thing, and the fact that I’m unwilling to go through and delete the chaff opens questions I’d rather not have to answer on my birthday. But I think I can make it through my reasonably sized collection of physical releases. They range from outlaw country to classical ballet to à la mode indie rock to forgotten funk to hearty classic rock. (No metal, though, for some shameful reason. And very, very little hip-hop.) Theoretically, if I listen to one per day, I should be able to make it through by the time I’m twenty-nine. I have my doubts about that, but I’m willing to give it a shot.
I recognize that I probably sound implicitly moralist, as if I’m suggesting that you, too, ought to rid yourself of the evils of consumerism and appreciate what you have around you. But I’m not so sure that that’s a legitimate answer, because I’m not convinced that having stuff is a problem. I like stuff–that’s why I got most of it in the first place. But some of it I got for other reasons, whether to impress my friends, or to fashion an image of myself in my own mind, or simply because I like the actual feeling of ownership, of making something that once wasn’t mine, mine. But I’m twenty-eight now, too old for rockstar posturing and excess. I made it this far by sheer accumulation of will, it sometimes seems, like my youthful energy gave me one last shove at twenty-one and the momentum is only now tapering off. I’m coming to a stop, thank God, or at least beginning to move at a natural speed. And so I want to see what I can see.