“Our culture has become… utterly in love with its parent. It’s become a notion of boredom that is bought and sold, where nothing will happen except that people will become more and more terrified of tomorrow, because the new continues to look old, and the old will always look cute.”
That’s not a Justin Bieber lyric. It’s something Malcolm McLaren once said. He despised nostalgia. Which perhaps explains why the arch provocateur became such a fringe figure in recent years – because these days nostalgia is pretty much the only game in town.
Whether it’s Record Store Day, with its trainspotterish reverence for the days when hunched loners spent bleak Saturday afternoons pawing at dust-jacketed skiffle 12”s (as opposed to ordering online and then doing something less tedious with the rest of their day), or the much blogged-about cassette revival (actually involving about six people, most of whom write for Gorilla Vs Bear), musos are in agreement: music was better in them days – them days being, in almost every case, when they were teenagers, and music bewitched them for the first time.
Yet there’s one format that’s curiously resistant to nostalgia. In the MP3/streaming era, no-one seems to be mourning the death of the CD. Why is that? Has not enough time elapsed for a reappraisal to kick in (surely not: the noughties revival has already begun, after all). Or is there something fundamentally unlovable about this slice of polycarbonate plastic that dominated our listening habits for two decades?
There’s no shortage of theories. Some say the CD is undemocratic. Cassettes had a DIY, grass-roots quality that made them feel potentially seditious – hence the BPI campaign, “Home taping is killing music” – whereas compact discs were, from the start, nakedly a tool of the industry: the first CDs went onsale alongside the first CD players, in 1982. The technology behind both was developed in part by Sony.
From that point, the music industry’s jaw-dropping profitability for the rest of the 20th century was driven by middle-aged people upgrading their existing collections from vinyl to CD (providing almost pure profit for the labels).
The first bands to benefit from the CD age were already-successful arena-fillers like Dire Straits and U2. For that reason, the CD arrived with a kind of in-built fustiness – the leathery whiff of 50 quid man – even though the technology was glintingly new.
Consequently, we now associate CDs with the music biz in its blockbuster phase. Many of the enduring cultural phenomena of the ‘80s – Live Aid, Q magazine, the rise of suit-wearing yuppie pop stars like Phil Collins and Robert Palmer – were direct products of the CD age.
So: the CD never seemed like it was on the side of the fan. Home CD-ing never really took off. By the time the copying technology was widely available, we had MP3s instead. And besides, there was no magic to it. Who ever whiled away a happy weekend making and decorating a compilation CD-R?
And so on. The thing is, I’ve heard all these arguments, and I know what I ought to think in 2010 – but I just can’t bring myself to hate the compact disc. It’s time someone stuck up for this maligned format. CDs are basically brilliant, and here’s why.
1. They’re beautiful
Hold it up to the light: a gleaming arc of prismatic colour. Tilt it towards you and you can see your own idiot face staring back. Clever, no?
2. They don’t deteriorate
Record bores bang on about the ‘warmth’ of crackling vinyl. Cassette geeks hymn the palimpsestic quality of tape (ie you can hear the faint traces of what was there before). Meh. These are things music snobs say to make themselves feel superior to regular people. Personally I want to hear an album the way it was intended. CDs provide the purest, unmediated way to experience music.
3. They’re technological marvels
It’s an everyday miracle, how pouring liquefied plastic into a hydraulic press can produce something that blasts ‘The Holy Bible’ into your earholes. Just think. Before 1960 no human being had ever seen a laser beam. Thanks to CD players, by 1990 the technology was in practically in every home. Lasers in your living room! Come on, that’s impressive.
4. You can smear jam on them
This was a major early selling point, thanks to an episode of Tomorrow’s World in which a Bee Gees CD was shown to play after being covered in jam. It’s not clear why this was deemed a good thing – I’ve never handled a CD while making toast. Still, it’s good to know that it’s possible, should the need ever arise.
5. They are NOT ‘cheap’ or ‘plasticky’
People who say this are thinking of the packaging, particularly the jewel case, with its middle-bit that helpfully shatters into a thousand pieces if you look at it funny. But not all CDs come in jewel cases. Digipaks can be things of tactile gorgeousness. Indeed, (and this may be the most boring sentence I have ever written) I’m convinced that if the Digipak had become the industry standard, the CD might today still be in rude health.
So there you go. I started out railing against nostalgia, and ended up mired in gloopy affection for the past. But my basic point still stands: CDs rule. We used to think they were worth £16 each. And now we begrudge paying a penny for them. It’s a shame. But one day we will mourn their passing. Just you wait.