The package practically unwrapped itself, I was so excited.
The smallish square bundle arrived via postman, bandaged in bubble wrap and encased in a yellow envelope. Hurriedly, I tore it open, revealing an old object, but new to my hands: a compact disc.
I was pleased. The collection was finally complete.
Everybody’s Rockin’ is not a particularly good album. But it is a notorious work in the expansive canon of Neil Young.
Recorded in 1983, and released in between an eerily prescient electronica album (1982’s Trans) and a suspiciously retrograde country album (1985’s Old Ways), Everybody’s Rockin’ somehow sticks out as the oddest creature in a zoo that Neil Young was populating with naked mole rats and duck-billed platypi.
For whatever reason, though possibly just to piss of David Geffen, Neil Young made a rockabilly album. Consisting mostly of covers, and short by any standard (25 minutes), Everybody’s Rockin’ contains only one song of modest renown, a swinging rendition of an old blues standard made famous by Elvis, “Mystery Train.” You know the one.
This album was a footnote, barely.
Despite its historical triviality, and its wide availability via streaming, possessing this minor work in physical form stirred an irrational giddiness in my heart. After one (very) quick listen, I placed the silver disc back in its jewel case, and slid it onto the shelf, snugly, between all the other Neil Young creatures in my ark of old media.
It felt good. I now owned every one of Neil Young’s 35 studio albums.
Hello, my name is Rex, and I still buy physical media.
Whoa, hold on, I am not a complete freak — I do not buy new CDs.
I seek old media artifacts, hoping to round out collections. I now possess all studio albums by Fleetwood Mac (17), including the curious early work and the incurious late work. My shelves are populated with oeuvres of obvious masters: Zeppelin (9), Jay-Z (15), Bowie (26), Prince (32).
But this illogical drive to compile continues to push me to darker corners. No longer content interrogating the zealous fan bases of Steely Dan (9) and Sonic Youth (24), my archival craving has gone cross-media. Having compiled every issue of magazines like Might (15) and Spy (96), I now seek every Philip K. Dick novel (44).
This is the curse of a completionist.
But it is not nostalgia. (I cannot bear hearing that sentimental tune, the one that pines for the days of paper and vinyl. It is an old, tired song. #pono.) Sure, these albums unlock some personal memories. But as anyone who has scoured eBay for a mint 1913-D Buffalo Nickel knows, the aggregation of complete sets can be mindless: Must. Complete. Kraftwerk. Corpus.
Music is now something I collect.
Or so I say. I use that impersonal word, collect, with intent, hoping you grant me a reprieve for this silly, weak sin. (Who accumulates music in an age of abundance? A fool, that’s who!) Gathering these objects is not a costly venture — Everybody’s Rockin’ knocked me back $6.89. But I confess to secretly hoping these bundles of media will one day accrue financial value.
CDs, I hope, will become the baseball cards of my generation.
They are, more likely, the Beanie Babies of my generation.
This curse to collect is born of historical circumstance. Let us begin by blaming the ’90s.
That nervous decade was the apex of American Collectionism. Before hoarding took on pathological connotations, stockpiling tchotchkes was celebrated: Pokemon and Pogs, Tamagotchi and Troll Dolls, My Little Pony and Power Rangers, new Air Jordans and vintage Doc Martens.
It was an era of baubles containing untapped value — collect ’em all!
Were you crestfallen when mom threw out your baseball cards? (No, not the ’86 Jose Canseco!) Do you still snip at your kid brother at Thanksgiving dinner every year? (Boba Fett loses all its value when you unpackage it!) Did you contend that dolls stuffed with plastic pellets were an investment? (Beanie Babies will always be in demand!) Then you participated in the collectionist fable of the ’90s.
But where did this unquenchable compulsion to collect objects arise? The answer, invisible to us at the time, now seems obvious: digital anxiety.
In the ’90s, the internet had not yet turned the history of human thought into a search box. But everyone knew it was coming — digitization was in the air. As the clock ticked toward Y2K, human creativity was being slowly churned into bits. This virtualization created an anxiety, a subliminal fear: objects will become scarce.
Identifying oneself as a collector became a coping mechanism for millennial angst. eBay, founded in 1995, became the first mass consumer internet sensation by creating a marketplace of elusive objects, prolonging the fiscal fiction that your rare Def Leppard box set from Japan had latent value.
Within a decade, the final brick in our collectionist myth was yanked out from beneath us: The real estate market collapsed. That inflated bubble — the zeppelin of spatial hoarding — was the last breath of anxiety over physical impermanence.
We had a bad case of Archive Fever.
And we still have Archive Fever, but the strain has been virtualized.
My fellow Message-ists Andy Baio and Jessamyn West have written about the profound failure of digital archiving initiatives within corporate technology institutions. Some of that failure is cultural; some of it, legal; and more still, the grinding gears of capitalism. But mostly, the failure is systemic.
Archiving is always an inherent failure. An archive simultaneously creates memory while destroying it. Anyone who has used Facebook knows this. We might like to think of social media as a compendium of memories, but it is anything but. Facebook is a highly selective index of projections, not an official record of any “true” history.
Like all archives, like all social media, Facebook is both truth and fiction, memex and mirror, remembering and forgetting.
When we are young, we listen to forget.
When old, we listen to remember.
An archive’s job is to store and retrieve information — the content is as important as the delivery. (Have you tried to play a CD lately? Finding a device for playback has become more rarefied than the content itself. CD players will expire before CDs do.)
Archives are systems for knowing and unknowing — they require recall, but they also need forgetting. This need to forget helps explain the surge in the ephemeral web: disappearing content in Snapchat, transient posts on 4chan, and self-destructing Twitter feeds.
In his posthumous book Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida diagnosed this dilemma. He describes this syndrome, this anxiety, which emerges from an archive that is always incomplete, never finished:
The archivist produces more archive,
and that is why the archive is never closed.
It opens out of the future.