In his 1955 essay “Living With Music,” writer Ralph Ellison realized the usefulness of his LP collection amid a moment of rapid social transformation. “Perhaps in the swift change of American society in which the meanings of one’s origin are so quickly lost, one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time…to make us what we are.”1 Introduced a few years before Ellison’s essay was published, the long-playing 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record and its associated playback devices expanded the temporal, sonic, and visual dimensions of phonography (Ellison admits to being a hi-fi aficionado in the essay). But while the LP was undeniably modern, its basic mechanical processes remained the same as they had been for a half-century: place a stylus made from a precious mineral into a scriptal spiral2 carved into a plastic disc, set a few gears in motion, and conjure sounds made by invisible performers that can be repeated over and over. Living with LPs afforded Ellison the capacity to tinker with literally cutting-edge technologies, while ritualistically summoning voices, sounds, and personal recollections from his past. Perhaps he would agree with Evan Eisenberg that the act of living with music and listening to albums “is a séance where we get to choose our ghosts.”3
Definitions of ritual are as slippery as those of music, but wherever there are expressive symbolic activities separated from everyday life and enacted in a repeated sequence, music likely plays a role. It marks rites of passage, forges metaphysical connections, generates a sense of community, secures generational continuity, and chronicles the passage of time. As postwar America started generating new ceremonies and symbolic objects that helped orient Americans to life in a modern consumer society, the vinyl LP became a key totem of domestic ritual. Ellison’s idea of “living with” is key: while the 45 rpm single format was aimed at the youth market and was strongly linked to the jukebox, the LP was made for the adult living room, den, and apartment, generating what Eisenberg called the “ceremonies of a solitary.” Whether playing Messiah on Christmas Day or Thelonious Monk on Sunday morning, LPs lend themselves toward the solemn practice of customary activation. “If a record has its special place in your life, you don’t cheapen it by playing it at random,” he insists.4 Even the LP’s packaging became symbolically meaningful: the cardboard sleeves that once served purely as protection from rough transport became one of the primary everyday arenas where high art exited the ritualistic aura of the museum and folded into the consumer rites of industrial capitalism.
Vinyl LPs allow ordinary listeners to enact a domestic variation of the high-flown roles of curator, conservator, and museum attendant. Underscoring the LP’s material composition—polyvinyl chloride, a compound found throughout the inside and outside of the modern home—the records need to be carefully maintained through a step-by-step process. Like most modern consumer rituals, cleaning an LP is a self-fulfilling activity—collectors do it because it creates a deeper connection with the object—but it also generates an audible result, in the reduction of surface noise. No self-respecting LP collectors will ever let their fingers touch the LP’s sensitive playing surface, which they regularly clean with special brushes and liquids, while symbolically inspecting them for any irregularities (many 1950s and 1960s LPs contained specific maintenance instructions in their liner notes). Then, once the LP’s music is released into the air, listeners must take care to avoid bumping the delicate mechanisms of the player, lest they trigger the vibe-extinguishing cacophony of a stylus scraping laterally across the vinyl grooves.
Vinyl rituals flourished during the heyday of the rock counterculture. “If rock concerts and festivals were revival meetings,” Eisenberg observed, “record listening was the regular sacred service.”5 The late 1960s was the moment that rock ‘n’ roll—initially the world of pop singles—was redefined as the artful LP medium of “rock.” The 33 1/3 discs consequently transformed into talismans, their song orders parsed like sacred texts, and their elaborately designed packaging rumored to contain enigmatic, if not transgressive messaging. Concurrently, record stores shifted from tidy supermarkets into groovy secular temples that also sold drug paraphernalia, often to those same heads who were using gatefold jackets as joint-rolling trays. The ritual activities of smoking pot and playing LPs are deeply intertwined: both require a series of orderly steps to enact a change in experience and consciousness. Does the weed make the music better, or vice-versa? Does anyone really want to learn the truth? As portrayed in the nostalgic turn-of-the-century film Almost Famous and TV show Freaks and Geeks, for music fans who came of age in the 1970s, being handed down a collection of rock LPs by an elder was as much a rite of passage into young adulthood as smoking their first joint.
In the mid-1970s Bronx, the same gargantuan record industry that fostered the rock revolution was being deconstructed and pieced back together by young Black cultural entrepreneurs who set dancefloors thrumming with rhythmic “breaks” salvaged from old LPs, thus exploiting the format’s most ritualistic affordance: repetition. As hip-hop evolved through subsequent generations, the practice of digging in the crates grew to index “an almost ritualistic connection to hip-hop history,”6 but as Jenny Stoever importantly notes, a significant origin point of DJ practice was the domestic vinyl rituals of the hip-hop innovators’ Black and Latinx mothers. Growing up, the mothers of young men such as Lance Taylor took care to select “just the right album to set the mood in their apartments, maybe, or to change their perspective on a challenging day, or to fill in their children’s musical education, or to get ready before a night out.”7 These mood-altering household procedures imbued the young Taylor with a passion and skill for musical curation and contextualization that, as Afrika Bambaataa, he would use to change the course of musical history as hip-hop’s first diplomat of postmodern ritual ecstasy.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the recording industry that had been created out of vinyl LPs had fully transitioned to compact discs, which, while replicating and shrinking the LP and its paratexts, otherwise had the comparative allure of office supplies.8 Vinyl had become a residual medium,9 its ritual status curdling into a kind of nostalgia that, during the mp3 file and streaming platform booms of the 2000s, acquired an artisanal patina. More than a century after Thorstein Veblen noted the rise of “devout consumption”10 at the earliest moments of consumer culture, a network of independent retailers created a new shopping holiday that linked analog music media formats—awkwardly dubbed “physical media”—with an anti-corporate ethos, and called it Record Store Day. In the holiday’s branding, the organizers reanimated the dormant domestic rituals of vinyl LPs for a new market—teaching a new generation how to live with music. “Tired of fighting with your family over who gets to play their favorite recording artists on the living room computer? Try a ‘record,’ the music format that mother, dad, brother and sister can all enjoy!,” the text on a 2010 tote bag sarcastically suggested. “RECORDS ARE KNOWN AS “PHYSICAL MEDIA,” it instructs. “HOLD IT! HEAR IT! SEE IT! SHOW IT!”, the bag playfully demanded. “Remember to flip—yes, flip—your records over,” it recommended.11 Through Record Store Day, the domestic rituals of the 33 1/3 vinyl LP that were developed within a flourishing industrial consumer culture a half-century earlier were reimagined as traditional customs for a digital-music cohort that views the discs and their machines as a form of “new media.” In a fully digital music landscape, the vinyl LP had been resurrected again, this time as a ritualized reminder of recorded music’s own recent past.
Ralph Ellison, “Living With Music,” in Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, ed. Robert O’Meally (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 14.
Theodor W. Adorno and Thomas Y. Levin, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” October 55 (Winter 1990), 60.
Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 46
Joseph G. Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 92.
Jenny Stoever, “Crate Digging Begins at Home: Black and Latinx Women Collecting and Selecting Records in the 1960s and 1970s Bronx,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Music, ed. Justin D. Burton and Jason Lee Oakes (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press), 3.
Mark Richardson, “Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?” Pitchfork, 29 July 2013, https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/29-does-vinyl-really-sound-better/.
John Davis, “Going Analog: Vinylphiles and the Consumption of the ‘Obsolete’ Vinyl Record,” in Residual Media, ed. Charles Acland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 222–36.
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: The Modern Library, 1899/1931), 307.
Eric Harvey, “Siding with vinyl: Record Store Day and the branding of independent music,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 6 (2017), 593.