Thirty-one is the age at which I’ve finally come to grips with that fact that I’m no longer young. I see the value in social media. Facebook can be great for connecting with friends and family. Twitter played an enormous role in the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012. Instagram is a terrific way to capture and share beautiful moments, albeit in highly filtered fashion. Such usefulness, however, is so often overshadowed by the irresistible urges of narcissism within each of us. To me, these outlets, in the name of instant communication, actually feed the need to grandstand. And that’s fine. I just don’t care. But watching roving groups of teens on my hometown’s streets as they silently bask in the soft glow of their smartphones’ screens, saying little to but endlessly texting each other, makes me: a) pray for the future; and b) reminisce about how different things were when I was young. Those last eight words are irrefutable proof of my having firmly entered the boring realm of adulthood.
Why is it that we all default back to “the good old days”? Things back then probably weren’t any more wholesome or meaningful than they were for our parents, or their parents before them. But at some point, we all longingly look back at what seem to have been the halcyon years of our youths. I’ve already written -- perhaps needlessly -- about “The Vinyl Revival” as a form of audiophile nostalgia. Vinyl has a specific sound, and there’s a bit of pomp, circumstance, and ritual to LP playback. Tubed electronics aren’t quite as high-maintenance, yet there’s something inescapably cool about their geometry, warm glow, and golden sound. Recently, however, I spotted something that seemed so outlandish that at first I thought it was a joke.
For quite a while now, Urban Outfitters has sold vinyl, record players, and headphones. I was unaware that they also sell cassette tapes: 49 different titles, in fact. If you were hoping to fortify the burgeoning tape collection for your 1980s beater car, you need look no further than Justin Bieber’s Purpose, the Back to the Future soundtrack, and four of Blink 182’s finest offerings, all available on cassette from Urban Outfitters’ online store. Need a blank for that sweet mixtape you’ve been planning to give as a gag gift to your college roommate? UO’s got you covered. It’s befuddling enough that people my age would spring for a record player, and spend $25-$30 of their hard-earned cash to buy Taylor Swift’s 1989 on vinyl. I can respect that, even if I can’t wrap my mind around it. But . . . cassettes? What am I missing? Am I in some sort of alternate reality?
Last month, Ken Kessler wrote about the possible resuscitation of reel-to-reel tape and concluded: “Nonsense? Perhaps. But consider this, for your irrational side: nothing in the world of hi-fi looks cooler than an open-reel deck spinning away on one’s equipment rack. And for some of us, that’s worth the hassle.” On the one hand, I’d respectfully disagree with the notion that an open-reel deck is in any way cool, though I concede that spinning metal wheels are no more arbitrary a source of pleasure than small, dimly illuminated bulbs. I do agree, though, that for certain individuals, nothing else will do.
And there’s the rub. On the one hand, I want to hate the vinyl revival. It’s not logical. It’s cumbersome. It’s expensive and high-maintenance. I’d love to heap ridicule on the people who would spend $15 on a new cassette, before, presumably, donning their vintage yellow Sony Walkman and rollerblading to the thrift store for some “new” apparel. Finally, I can easily picture myself chortling at the audiophiles who salivate at the mere mention of a new ReVox reel-to-reel deck.
But I can’t. I respect those who are willing to invest the time, effort, and money in keeping alive the idiosyncrasies of our past. I won’t go so far as to say that we have a deep-seated duty to perpetually recycle the artifacts of bygone eras, but I do believe that those who do should be celebrated, or at least acknowledged for doing so. And in my own, non-audiophile way, I can identify with that sentiment. The first car I bought was a used Mazda RX-8, a vehicle derided as much for its angry-guppy appearance as for its suicide doors and Wankel rotary engine. It also suffered the ignominy of having its stated horsepower rating be reduced from 247 to 238, and eventually to 232 -- an impressive feat for an engine that remained functionally unchanged over the course of its nine years of production. The model was also known for its susceptibility to flooded engines, which required a tow to a dealership to rectify, and premature engine failure due to faulty rotor lubrication.
But I’d buy another RX-8 in a heartbeat. If you could accept the car’s shortcomings, it was a beautiful vehicle to drive. Its 9000rpm redline and smooth, non-pistonic arrangement made revving that Wankel a joy rather than an obligation. A lack of meaningful torque provided a cheap excuse to wind it out even in day-to-day traffic. And its tactile, predictable, organic handling was universally praised. Did you know that the RX-8 was one of Car and Driver’s 10Best for three consecutive years? That Mazda only sold about 17 of the cars -- a rough guess on my part -- and that the motor might make a mess of itself even if you treated it like royalty, is irrelevant to me. It made me feel something I haven’t felt since, and to me, that’s worth something.
So to all you audiophiles who have no interest in embracing the new, the innovative, the spec-driven, I say, Right on! This hobby is as much about the music itself as the process of re-creating it. And for many, it’s a pursuit of emotional ephemera -- the attempt to recapture that childlike sense of wonder surrounding our transcendental two-channel experiences of yore.
What was I saying? I guess I really am getting old. Damn kids with their Snapchat and ironic cassette tapes. Why, back in my day . . .
. . . Hans Wetzel