In my teens, I imagined the unwilling recipient of my latest crush letting her eyes play across the neatly arranged discs in my trendy IKEA shelves, slowly becoming convinced of my exceptional taste.
“You have all of the Cure albums,” she’d say, clearly impressed.
“I’m a fan,” I’d say, hinting at the intense inner turmoil that I shared with Robert Smith. The torrent of powerful emotions churning beneath my cool exterior that, if she chose, she could unleash.
“Is there anything you want to me to put on,” I’d say, really asking if there was anything she wanted me to take off.
“So many excellent options,” she’d say, running her finger tantalisingly across my CD cases. “The Smashing Pumpkins, or maybe the Pixies… hmm, but I’m not quite in the mood for guitars, y’know?”
In the end, she’d opt for one of my highly credible mid-nineties trip hop slash electronica albums, like Morcheeba or Massive Attack or Thievery Corporation. Maybe even Portishead’s Dummy, because we weren’t afraid to confront the sadness of existence itself as our bodies…
Let me be very clear that this sort of thing never happened. I didn’t live an entirely monastic life in those days, although I wasn’t too far off. But whatever strange alchemy attracted the occasional woman to me had nothing to do with my CD collection, at any rate.
And yet I assembled my CDs with a devotion bordering on the fanatical. Even when I had practically no money, I’d buy, say, a rare Clouds mini-album just because I wanted my collection to be complete.
It’s not that I didn’t love the music – I did. I always had a CD on, no matter what I was doing. And I queued to get the self-titled Blur album on the day of release because it came with a free shirt which immediately became my favourite t-shirt. But I wanted my music to do more than just fill my ears with melodies – I wanted it to define who I was, at a time when I really didn’t know yet.
So it was with more than a little recognition that I read Nick Hornby’s brilliant novel High Fidelity at about this time. Hornby’s narrator loves music, but he and his record-shop employees use their arcade music knowledge as a proxy for taste, for coolness, and even in lieu of a personality. Whereas once their ancestors fought one another to demonstrate their strength, they duel to see who has the best knowledge of obscure Clash B-sides.
High Fidelity’s recurring motif is the compilation tape, which was a labour of love back in the era of C-90 cassettes. By this point, I burnt compilation CDs instead, which was slightly less time-consuming but equally agonising in terms of assembling the perfect playlist.
I digitised my CD collection long ago when I got my first MP3 player, and given my love of gadgets, I haven’t played a song off a disc in years. Now I use my phone or tablet to play a song off my hard drive and beam it to my stereo. Or, increasingly, I just play it with a streaming service.
But still I lug my CD collection from one house to another, carefully preserved in a sealed series of plastic tubs. It cost me so much money to put together at a time when I had precious little, and I devoted so many hours to flicking through the racks at now-departed megastores that I can’t quite bear to give them all away. CDs don’t even have the romance of vinyl, but still, even though I objectively have no need for them, I hold on.
A few weeks ago, a film critic friend of mine gave away all his DVDs. I can only assume it was pointed out to him that he’d never watch any of them again, and that in the small apartments we all have to live in nowadays, space was at a premium. He had thousands of discs, and he was giving them away for nothing to his friends, who excitedly promised to come around and scoop up a bunch of them.
As I looked at the photo of his shelf that he’d put on Facebook to publicise the event, I felt a brief flickering of jealously, but it quickly subsided. Once upon a time I would have viewed a man with a collection like that as lucky. Now, the shelves of DVD just seemed like clutter.
I didn’t go around to grab a share of his DVD bounty, because I have my own collection of unwatched DVDs sitting in another series of plastic tubs. More of them are still in their plastic shrink-wrapping than I’d like to admit. Because now, when I want to watch a movie at home, I tend to watch something I’ve stored on my cable box’s hard drive, or pay for a high-definition download. It’s just easier, and it absolves me from the responsibility of building up a collection, hoping it’s complete.
Sure, it’s far from a completely satisfying system. There’s no easy way of watching, for instance, the wonderful Wong Kar-Wai DVDs that I ordered from Hong Kong on eBay. But that’s okay. I don’t seem have that much spare time to watch movies nowadays anyway, and there must be at least fifty on my cable box, just waiting patiently for me to watch them.
Besides, pretty soon Netflix will launch in Australia, and a few similar services are already here or on their way which will let me stream movies to my heart’s content.
It makes me a little sad that the art of collection is dying. That instead of careful curation, we have lazy abundance. Friends sometimes confess that when they log into a streaming service, they’re so overwhelmed that they can’t even think what to search for. And I know those services don’t necessarily have all that much in the way of obscure indie music, or some of the lovely rarities that the High Fidelity characters prized so highly, but with literally millions of songs on offer, even they wouldn’t be stuck for choice.
And if they somehow were, they could just log into Pitchfork’s Spotify app to listen to the new albums that their fellow obsessive tunesnobs are raving over.
These days, I don’t have any groaning shelves of CDs or DVDs, These days, anyone inspecting my apartment will have to be impressed by other indicators of my excellent taste. I may have to impress visitors with my charm, or conversation, or, heaven forbid, perhaps even with who I actually am.
And if that fails – well, I’ve still got a fairly decent book collection.