Another review of Vinyl has appeared. Writing in the journal Rock Music Studies, Carey Fleiner likes my book. She calls it ‘a fine introduction to both the history of recorded sound and the cultural impact of the physical object that is the vinyl’. She also praises it for explaining ‘clearly and in compelling arguments the dichotomy between the mass production of records and our personal relationship with them’.
She does have her reservations, stating that that ‘Osborne’s wide-reaching scope is hampered, however, by the concise nature of the book’. In particular, she feels that my work on Eldridge Johnson, the original head of Victor Records, and on record collecting and gender could have been developed further.
She’s right. These subjects are worthy of books of their own. And there are other topics in Vinyl that could have generated separate works, including record shops, jukeboxes and the charts. What makes the difference with her choices is that they fail to fit in with the style of the book.
To have spent more time on Eldridge Johnson would have been to introduce a biographical element that is missing elsewhere. I am nevertheless in agreement that he is a figure who should be more widely known. Only Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner are of comparable importance in the history of the analogue disc. Amongst many other things, Johnson was responsible for the development of shellac records and the record label (in relation to both meanings of the term). He was also the first record company head to see the full potential of recorded music.
Record collecting is a different matter. To have developed an exploration of collecting and gender would have been to draw upon skills in psychology that I do not possess. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own pet theories, and perhaps here is the place to sketch one of them out.
A strand of thinking amongst academics is that a love of music (and of the arts more generally) is associated with qualities that society considers to be more female than male. As a consequence men have developed coping mechanisms to render their enthusiasm more masculine. One method is to fiddle with hi-fi equipment. Susan J. Douglas argues that ‘For men who loved music but were eager to avoid [effete] associations, technical tinkering was one way to resolve the contradictions’. Another is to systematize their appreciation. Will Straw argues that record collecting ‘reflects a masculine need to order the world’.
While there’s something in this, I think there is another reason for the great male cover-up. Men can have an excessive reaction to music. The broadcaster and journalist Robert Elms has frequently argued that men are more romantic than women. It is men who are more likely to make grand gestures, whether in love or war. This can also be witnessed in the male reaction to ailments: it is men, after all, who get man flu.
Oscar Wilde captured this aspect of maleness in ‘The Critic as Artist’. The following passage could be regarded as condescending: it looks down on a ‘commonplace’ man who should not be worthy of grand emotion. On the other hand, it could be regarded as inclusive: Wilde has keyed into the romantic longing that resides in all men. He writes that:
After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who has led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.
Men don’t necessarily collect records to hide their femininity, this ordering also prevents them from unleashing something terribly male. I’m not alone in needing to keep my great renunciations in check!