All this month, Soundcheck, the daily music show on our local NPR cash-cow WNYC, is airing a series on the music of the summer of 1994 because that was twenty years ago and, looking back, that was a pretty nifty year for music. That was also the summer after I graduated high school and eagerly anticipated my move to college.
Man, that was a long time ago.
To give you an idea of how long ago that was, most of my music listening happened in my car1, and my way of listening in a car seems downright antiquated. The centerpiece of my in-car music system was a $300 Sony Discman CD player that came with a three-second memory buffer. That memory prevented the CD from skipping anytime I hit a pothole.
I could power this device with batteries, but it would barely last an hour, especially if the buffer was being used, not nearly enough for a drive from my parent’s home in the Antelope Valley to my school in Santa Barbara. To keep the tunes going, I used a DC adapter. I know many people still use these to charge a phone or, if you’re a cab driver, a standalone GPS unit. The charging port in cars from those days was designed as a cigarette lighter because in those days, there were more people who smoked than people who used a handheld computer. Getting that outlet to power an electronic device was, I think, one of the most clever hacks ever devised.
Listening to the CD player through the car’s audio system required another hack using a car audio cassette adapter that connected to the line-out jack from my Discman. I would insert the other end, shaped like a cassette tape, into the tape deck. Also, with that adapter I was guaranteed backward compatibility: I could listen to cassettes and CDs, and I wasn’t forced to upgrade until I was tired of exhausting my tape deck’s cutting-edge features, such as auto-reverse and song seek.
With all this great hardware, of course, I had great software. In 1994, and years before the iPod, carrying my entire music library was virtually impossible. I needed to bring a small batch of CDs with me. In 1994, I probably owned about 200 CD but didn’t travel with more than twelve discs at a time.2 Every car trip required careful curation and anticipation about what my friends and I might want to hear many hours in the future. This might seem inconvenient today, but I really got to know my music back then, especially how good a particular band was beyond their hits.
After college, I found myself listening to music in my car less frequently. Santa Barbara and UCSB were particularly friendly to walking and cycling, and long drives with my friends became a rare thing. That combined with a move to New York City made riding in a car a less common occurrence for me that riding in an airplane. Whenever I get into a car today, I just get turn the radio to the local NPR station.
As much as Soundcheck’s bidecennial retrospective on 1994 makes me feel like an old man, it at least confirms that my music is objectively better than anything these kids listen to these days.
- Yes, this is the same guy who drives about 200 miles per year but pedals about 20x that. ↩
- I never got the 100-disc binders that held a chunk of every single CD I ever owned. That was a good thing, in retrospect, because at least two of my friends had their big binders stolen from their cars. Those were, without exaggeration, devastating losses. ↩