Benjamin, Vinyl, and Almost Famous

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With sound and music studies in mind, I recently re-read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin famously suggests that the mass reproduction of art has stripped it of its “aura,” which he defines as the mystical emanation surrounding an aesthetic object that identifies its authenticity. Proposing three stages of art, Benjamin explains how this aura originates and decays: in the first stage, art is appreciated for its cult or ritualistic value; that is, someone would create a unique piece of art (like a sculpture) for worship.  Second, following this religious stage is a secular one, where people value art for its aesthetic beauty. Benjamin claims that during the Renaissance and for three centuries thereafter, aesthetic objects retain their aura. (Think of any famous Renaissance painting; there is still a spiritual presence surrounding that very object, which is why, in part, we revere them.) In the third stage machines begin to mass-produce art, and the aesthetic object’s aura disappears. Once art is made for reproduction, Benjamin explains, the “authentic” product is no longer valued, and the original will become indistinguishable from its innumerable duplicates. He gives the example of a photo, which does not carry the same presence as, say, a Renaissance portrait; we value the photo for its (reproducible) content, not for its original print. As Benjamin writes, “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (256).

Walter Benjamin

But has mechanical reproduction totally diminished art’s aura? My immediate counter-argument to Benjamin’s history of art is the vinyl record. I have what may be a very subjective response to vinyl: when I hold one of my records, I can sense the very aura Benjamin describes. Yet maybe my feelings aren’t so unique; the recent resurgence in record sales cannot be attributed only to the (often debated) difference in sound between vinyls and CDs/MP3s. There is an allure to records — no other format (CDs, cassettes, and, especially, digital music) has the same cultish appeal.  Even though records are mass produced, their form — not to mention the music they hold — still carries some cultish and aesthetic value.

Part of the appeal of vinyls is that although the record is mass-produced, it contours to its owner, becoming more and more individualized over time. Some of my records, for instance, begin to crackle after repeated listens, especially near the songs I play over and over. Scratches modify the record, making it one’s own. Because records are frequently bought used — at record stores, garage sales, and flea markets — these individual memories are constantly exchanging hands, preserving with them a bit of someone else’s past. Whereas Benjamin says the distinct “here and now of the artwork” wanes once art is mechanically reproduced, I find that vinyls are like time capsules in that they preserve a history (while also growing in the present) (254). Many of the records I own are from the 1960s and 70s, and it shows. There is a distinct presence to the record — its look, condition, inserts, and even smell. All of these qualities contribute to its aura.

After considering Benjamin’s argument, I mostly think he’s right: show me five unsealed, identical records, and I won’t be asking, “which one is authentic?”  It’d be a foolish question to ask!  But I do think it is interesting how something like a record can build its own aura over time.

Benjamin also writes that technological reproduction “emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to the ritual”; that is, once art becomes mass-produced, it can serve a different function other than worship (256). Yet I think Benjamin downplays the ritualistic appeal of mass-produced art. I keep my records as I would a shrine, for they hold some of the most cherished sounds of my existence. I think great records are meant to be worshiped; they become deeply personal objects that unlock different worlds for its listeners. I know others share these feelings too: one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous, depicts this mystical aura surrounding records when the film’s young protagonist, William Miller, explores the record collection his sister left behind for him. He knows he is about to discover new worlds as he flips through the albums, feeling their almost palpable aura. Watch as William begins caressing albums by Hendrix, Cream, and Joni Mitchell, as if he’s grazing the spiritual presence enveloping them.

Further underscoring the mysticism of music, William’s sister’s advises him to light a candle during Tommy and unleash its clairvoyant potential. He does, and, as promised, we’re propelled five years into the future, when William’s career as a rock journalist begins. (Keep watching for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent portrayal of Lester Bangs; you may ignore the Spanish subtitles, though). As audience members, we can sense the invisible aura surrounding these records, and director Cameron Crowe also lets us visualize their mystical possibilities.

For the many who do not purchase any tangible form of music, the concert may be the last place where there’s an aura present. After all, if there’s one thing we first-worlders do right, it’s build auras around celebrities — big and small. Concerts, however, even the most intimate ones, are constantly disrupted by technology: cameras, smartphones, and so on. When I saw Neutral Milk Hotel last month, the band specifically requested that no one use cameras or any video recording devices. Midway through the show, the lead singer politely asked a somewhat disobedient audience to put their cameras away, telling them (to paraphrase) to live in the present moment. Here Benjamin’s argument resonates, as technology again disrupts the “here and now,” blurring the present moment with its many past copies. Just look at the concert footage that makes it onto youtube: it generally looks and sounds the same — the same unsteady hand capturing sounds too loud for his/her device to capture. But the concert experience remains unique, and it’s best enjoyed without someone else’s camera shielding your view. At concerts, I can’t help but think Benjamin was right; but at home, when that first sound of warm fuzz bleeds into a record’s opening song, I can still sense the aura.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks, Kevin! You make a good challenge to Benjamin here. If I’m understanding your points, vinyl is a mass-produced art form that retains an aura because it becomes personalized. The examples you give suggest that that personalization happens in minor differences that distinguish one person’s vinyl album from another. That raises interesting questions about artistic authority in a work — does it come from the album artist? The listener? The owner of the album?

    If personalizing the art is what distinguishes it from all the other replications of a given piece and/or what gives it an aura, I also wondered if another potential wrinkle in Benjamin’s argument could be covers of particular songs. Is a cover a new work because it’s a new interpretation or personalization of it? If mechanical reproduction has diminished the uniqueness of art, a cover of a song reclaims originality for the work at the same time that it self-identifies as a copy. Also, if the rareness of a work gives it its value under Benjamin’s model, the proliferation of covers seems to give legitimacy in this digital age. I’m thinking of groups like Pentatonix and Walk Off the Earth who have made their entire careers almost completely on covers of other songs. At least in the case of Walk Off the Earth they’re famous completely from the videos of their covers on youtube. They’ve become so successful that they’re even on their own tour now, which suggests a reverse trajectory from Benjamin’s: these groups move from the mechanical reproduction of a popular, commodified song to their own original version of it to the singular experience of a concert with its attendant aura.

  2. This is a really nice opening post, and it raises some great issues with some vivid examples. But I’m going to play the role of the cranky Marxist here, because every conversation about Benjamin has to include a cranky Marxist, even though he was among the least cranky of the Marxists in his circle. But he was a Marxist, so he might ask: How do you distinguish the relationship you describe with vinyl records from what Marx calls “commodity fetishism,” the fantasy we have that there is something “personal” about mass-produced items, that they speak to us, that they are in some way made or tailored to “us” (a fantasy that has become more and more insidious and prevalent as the interface of social media and marketing allow corporations to get more and more granular data about us). What makes vinyl aficionados different from any other niche market that the media corporations identify, target, and profit from, any different from people who like IPAs better than lagers, or who like 100% cotton more than blends for their shirts?

    Getting slightly less cranky: there are at least two ways of reading Benjamin’s notion of the aura in this sort of analysis. One is to see him as arguing the linear historical narrative of decline that you describe, that goes from ritual to aesthetics to mass-produced commodity. That narrative is present in Benjamin, but I think it’s combined with a more complex and dialectical notion of history. Doesn’t the “secularized” aura that morphs into notions of aesthetic beauty after the Renaissance sort of retroactively construct the notion of ritual, in order to distinguish itself from it (thus making aesthetics “parasitic” on religion)? Similarly, isn’t the notion of an aura persisting today, in an age not just of mechanical but of digital reproduction, always a kind of retroactive construction (not quite nostalgia–you’re not exactly nostalgic for vinyl right? especially since you’re too young to have experienced it as anything other than its current niche-market form–but more like what Freud calls Nachträglichkeit, which is sometimes translated as “afterwardsness”)? In other words, what does it mean if we always associate “authenticity” with past technological forms and what Raymond Williams calls “vestigial” social forms (which he distinguishes from “anticipatory” social forms in which one can see the potential for transforming society)?

    Obviously, again, I think this a great post, because it got me thinking, a lot. And I didn’t even to into your discussion of live music, mostly because there I think I pretty much agree with you.

    1. Hi Sharon and Glenn,

      Thank you for your lucid and thought-provoking responses.

      Sharon, you raise interesting points about the unique position of the remix — how it’s both a copy and an original. It seems that the remix reveals that modern, digital music can actually sustain, or perhaps reclaim, an aura. Walk Off the Earth’s “reverse trajectory” from Benjamin is also a fascinating observation. Thanks for introducing me to the group! I’m checking them out now.

      Glenn, your point about “commodity fetishism” is well-taken. To respond, I initially wanted to argue that records, unlike IPA/t-shirts/niche markets, are more artistic, or are more like the other types of art Benjamin discusses. But beer aficionados might argue that beer is just as much an art as music — and just as transcendent, too. Similarly, shirt lovers could add that their items change as they wear them.

      I suppose people, myself included, do fetishize vinyls, projecting an aura that makes each record seem intensely personal. Though, I wonder, couldn’t we say the same thing about literature? I’m sure there’s a Marxist that fetishizes his/her Communist Manifesto. Don’t some of these objects actually ‘speak to us’ with words/sounds? I feel like there’s a difference, beyond my biases, between music/vinyl and the other niche markets you list, but I’m still not completely sure how to express it.

      To respond to your second paragraph, I do not think the aura is necessarily ‘afterward’ (though I agree that it’s a construction we make retroactively). The aura observed at concerts — when you can see past the glares of cameras, of course — is one instance of experiencing the aura during the present.

      Thank you both again for the responses. More content to come very soon.

  3. I am reminded of the first job I got after I graduated from college, which was as a cashier at a bookstore. (Even in the 1980s, an Ivy League BA did not guarantee instant wealth and fame). The manager of the store gave me an orientation on the first day in which he warned me and another new employee “not to be under the illusion that selling books is any more glamorous than selling men’s underwear.” I don’t quite believe that…but I also think that we in the business of teaching literature may sometimes excessively fetishize objects to which we attribute aesthetic value, and that that bookstore manager’s statement may be a useful corrective to that tendency–as is Benjamin’s “Work of Art” article.

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