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Sonic youth
Musical adolescence in three parts

Tapes and CDs: Me (1984-1998)

My mother was a Christian right-winger and I loved sleazy rock and roll. One day in sixth grade, I came home from school to find the black-and-red liner notes of Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation unfolded on the kitchen table. In my house, that was worse than seeing a note from the principal. Later in the evening, there was an uncomfortable dinnertime dissection of the word "hooch," as in "Drank so much hooch/It made my eyes be gettin’ blurry," and a subsequent lecture about how listening to a Mick Jagger wanna-be beg a lady for premarital sex wouldn’t please Jesus, as in "Do me, do me, do me, all night (Baby let me follow you down)."

But what I took away from the sermon wasn’t the importance of avoiding odes to hooch or premarital sex. Instead, I learned to hide my cool tapes. Especially the ones Tipper Gore had gotten her greasy paws on: Prince, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, George Michael’s Faith, 2 Live Crew, anything with a parental-advisory sticker. I’d slip cassettes with foul lyrics into my room via a bunchy sock or a baggy jacket and then quickly bury them at the back of a dresser drawer. The act felt thrillingly rebellious, like I was doing something illicit — except it was perfectly legal.

Something shifted over the next 15 years with the advent of digital music. Peer-to-peer networks rendered parental-advisory stickers essentially useless, but the process by which kids funneled music into houses became more than a matter of disobedience — it became illegal, responsible to a more unforgiving authority than mom and dad. I became aware of this shift about a year ago, fooling around with my fortysomething sister’s PC. She has three teenage kids, a high-speed Internet connection, and the file-sharing application Kazaa mounted on her computer’s hard drive. Digging through the "My Shared Folder" — a communal container where anyone connected to Kazaa can access your MP3 files, a/k/a the public place where the RIAA snoops to nail file-traders — I found jams about booty-licking, paeans to pot-smoking, and a worse-than-you’d-imagine rap by Akinyele, titled "Put It in Your Mouth." All these songs are effectively sitting side by side in the middle of my sister’s living room. Since she has no idea how digital music works, though, she doesn’t realize what’s right under her nose.

Me, I’m ideal ammunition to support the RIAA’s argument against downloading: I used to buy between 75 and 100 CDs a year; now I buy about 20 or 30. My personal ethic of downloading goes like this: anyone who’s ever been featured on MTV’s Cribs doesn’t need my money. Anyone who dresses in more expensive-looking clothes than I do doesn’t need my cash. If a lyricist brags about passing the Courvoisier or glugging down bottles of Cristal, he or she really, really does not need my $13.99.

Despite the fact that I’ve downloaded (all legally, of course) more than 2500 songs on my laptop, digital music hasn’t changed the way I relate to music. The first time I saw the video for Guns n’ Roses’ "Welcome to the Jungle" on MTV, I remember being entranced by the sound of a crazy man maniacally squealing, "Ooooooh" or "Whoooooooah," or maybe it was "Whaaaaaaa." Whatever this freak with the reddish-blond bee’s nest was yelping, his guttural howl was the nastiest thing I’d heard in the first dozen years of my life — and the most seductive. To this day, the opening to "Welcome to the Jungle" makes my heart race, my skin chill, and my nerves tingle. The only difference, really, is that I don’t have to hide the record in my sock drawer anymore.

LPs: Ted (1973-1984)

My brother Ted fell for rock and roll in the sixth grade. The first record he ever bought using cash he’d earned from his neighborhood paper route was Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies. He’d heard "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on WRKO-AM 860 — a rock-and-roll station before it was a mouthpiece for angry old white men — and loved it. He too found himself burying potentially offensive music in hard-to-find places: he hid Billion Dollar Babies because it featured a song called "Raped and Freezin’"; he stashed Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, with its back cover that mimicked Bible verses, in the back yard until our mother went to bed. He knew he’d better hide them because when Mom found something she didn’t like, she always took action: once she made him glue together two pages of the liner notes to Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway because one of the sheets bore a grainy photo of breasts.

Over the next few years, Ted built his vinyl collection from the racks at the Lodge, a funky chain with a store in our Brockton hometown. A slice of ’70s kitsch right across from the city’s public high school, the Lodge sold Levi’s, denim vests, Earth shoes, bell-bottoms, and leather. Jeans flapped from the ceiling, white-wood paneling lined the walls, yellow smiley-face buttons were distributed free. Going to the Lodge was an event for Ted: it meant he’d scraped together enough dough to buy an album. He saved up $3.99 from his paper route to buy Kiss’s homonymous debut, and bought a triple Emerson Lake & Palmer record for $11.99. The only other places in town to buy records were department stores, places where "square" parents bought records for their kids: Zayre’s, Mammoth Mart, Sears, Kmart. But the Lodge was the place that carried obscure music, so if the Lodge didn’t have something in stock, Ted didn’t get it.

Like most music junkies, Ted collected records with a sense of urgency. When he wanted a new album, he had to have it. There was no MTV, so Ted learned about new music from browsing the Lodge’s racks and from Circus magazine, which he picked up from a local convenience store on Sundays after church. Back then, eight-tracks were the predominant form of portable music, but Ted hated them because they chopped records up into four parts regardless of the place in the record. Instead, he carried around a "really nerdy" three-millimeter tape player, for which he owned five tapes, including ZZ Top’s First Album and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run.

To this day, Ted still has six milk crates full of records in his living room. He doesn’t play them that often; they mostly collect dust. For a while, he switched over to CDs — he owns around 500 — but he doesn’t really buy them anymore. He doesn’t own a computer, has never downloaded an MP3, and doesn’t really understand the process by which his son gets a lot of his music.

CDs and MP3s: Teddy (1994-2003)

For Ted’s son Teddy, music is free. The 17-year-old flicks on his computer, opens the file-sharing program Kazaa, searches for a song in the application’s user interface, then clicks on it twice. But since his processor’s functions are so laggard, the hip-hop lover doesn’t usually download music at home, preferring to do so at his friend’s house. When the high-school senior and his buddies are lounging around his pal’s digs, doing whatever kids do when they’re left to their own devices, Teddy will hop onto his friend’s computer, scope out a few songs, and then wait while they dribble onto the hard drive. After he’s collected around 10 MP3s, he’ll rifle around the computer looking for other files his buddy has previously culled, and choose five or six more tracks. Then he’ll haul the entire collection onto a blank CD-R and make a compilation of 70 minutes of music to play in his car, at parties, at home — all for the cost of roughly two hours of intermittent mouse-clicking. Over the past year or so, he’s downloaded hundreds of songs, plus a movie or two. In total, he has about 40 or 50 burned CD mixes.

Although Teddy has access to all the audio he wants, he doesn’t always take it. His personal ethic of downloading is: if you don’t like the artist but like one of his or her songs, grab the tune online, rather than buying the whole album. With all the cross-pollinating MCs making cameos on one another’s singles — half of the top-20 singles listed on September 27’s Billboard Hot 100 "featured" a guest performer — a kid with favorite rappers has to resort to his own acquisition tactics to keep from going broke. Take Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott’s "Gossip Folks," a single featuring Ludacris. Teddy loves Ludacris; he’s already dropped 55 bucks to see the Dirty South rhymester this October at the FleetCenter. But he loathes the motormouth Misdemeanor — "It sounds like she’s mumbling gibberish half the time" — so he downloads "Gossip Folks" from Kazaa because he’d never fork over $15 for a Missy Elliott record just to hear Ludacris.

Teddy also uses Kazaa like a virtual crate digger seeking live and unreleased tracks. He’s corralled underground MC battles that’d be otherwise unavailable to a kid on the South Shore — he’s got all the Benzino and Eminem battles, plus loads of other unreleased tracks. He’s never really owned cassettes. For a while, a friend’s car had only a cassette player, so they bought a copy of 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ so they’d have driving music. "We had to fast-forward to find songs — it was funny," he says, as if they’d used an abacus to balance a checkbook.

Among his friends, Teddy is one of the minority who still regularly purchase CDs — he buys about two a week with the money he earns delivering pizzas. Teddy’s CD shopping largely takes place in big-box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City; sometimes he drives his rattletrap ’87 Celebrity to the Braintree Newbury Comics, one of the few places around that harks back to the sorts of lifestyle stores where his father shopped. Last week, Teddy bought Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance and DMX’s Grand Champ with bonus DVD. At the store, he noticed that downloading appears to be undercutting CD prices: DMX was selling for $10 and Bubba Sparxxx was $8, both during their first weeks of release.

A week ago, Teddy didn’t know what the RIAA was, although he admits he once heard on MTV that downloading music is illegal. Regardless, he doesn’t know anybody who’s stopped appropriating files out of fear of getting caught — and anyway, he says cagily, "I don’t do it in my house." But if he had access to a broadband connection at home, would he keep buying CDs? "I don’t know," he admits. "I’d have to see."

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]

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Sonic youth
Musical adolescence in three parts

Issue Date: September 26 - October 2, 2003
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