I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and I’m especially intrigued by the the chapter on placebos. The effect is probably well known. Crudely, it’s the idea that the belief that one is being healed or medicated is as likely to have a positive benefit as the actual medicine itself. It can be held responsible for everything from the occasional improvement in someone’s hay fever via to homeopathic sugar pills to remarkable treatment successes documented in shamanistic cultures. Goldacre cites Moerman’s reframing of placebos as the meaning response, ‘the psychological and physiological effects of meaning in the treatment of illness’ and I like the idea of explicitly addressing how meaning affects the tricky and highly permeable interface between mind and body.
So what does this have to do with records?
Another way of framing the placebo effect is to look at it as a consequence of the way rhetorical devices frame our responses to pain, illness, perceived pleasure or other life events. In other words
- do records sound better than mp3s because we expect them to?
- do we expect them to because of the rhetorical devices that comprise and frame the act of putting a record on?
When a shaman sets to work to drive out an illness, the dancing, chanting, herbs and all the rest of their activities form a powerful ritual that has an actual physical impact on many healing processes (for example, here’s an academic paper examining the impact of shamanistic ritual on drug addiction). Now lets think about the ritual associated with vinyl compare to CDs or mp3s with the caveat that, as with the placebo effect in medicine, all of this is deeply and locally culturally specific.
Firstly, there’s the act of choosing a record and the limitations the physical nature of the medium impose. Records occupy space. It takes time to riffle through a shelf and pull down just the right one. Additionally, long playing records aren’t set up to easily play just one song – one is choosing to immerse oneself for a set length of time. The cover art is larger and demands one’s full attention. The record itself is fragile and needs care and cleaning before being played. ‘Fragile’ equals valuable – a record is more easily broken, damaged, scratched than a CD. Records, then, demand an investment in acknowledging their ritual value before one has even turned on an amplifier and played a note. And it is a ritual, like the tea ceremony or awarding a degree – it’s a ceremony that ascribes value.
Then there’s the equipment. Mp3s are utterly portable and carry no inherent value. CDs can be exactly replicated on home equipment and are again relatively portable. Records are completely useless without a record player. Listening to records requires an environment specifically set up for record listening. It’s an activity which needs a dedicated sacred space, not to mention a non-trivial bunch of relatively pricey hi-fi, even at the lowest end.
To recap. Before we listen to a record, we’re (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people-who-listen-to-records’) prepared to accept that it has an innate value beyond that of other mediums. We’ve invested a degree of time up-front. We’ve spent quite a lot of money and organised a not inconsiderable portion of our homes to provide a space for this ritual*. We’re ready to be transported; to, in ritual terms, have our consciousness. We are ready to listen to a record.
Is it any wonder, after all this, that The Queen Is Dead sounds so much better on 180 gramme black vinyl?
The latter, by the way, relates directly to another phenomenon Ben documents, of how much more Western people trust anything that comes wrapped in pseudo-scientific-techno-babble over something presented in plain language. Of course 180 gramme vinyl sounds better. One hundred and eighty grammes!
Of course, there are are a seemingly limitless number of complicating factors – everything from how clean the record is to the quality of the stereo, the shape of the room, the amount of damage your ears have suffered, the bloody quality of the electricity – that feed into the journey from that deceptively simple vinyl groove to your ear. A controlled test is virtually impossible. And, in any case, if it really is the ritual and rhetoric of the vinyl placebo that enhances ones listening, does that really matter? When I put a record on, it’s a commitment to that piece of music that goes beyond sloping around the underground with my in-canal earphones and iPhone or slotting a CD into my work computer. Is it any wonder I get a little more out of it? And if the impact of my nice record player, speakers and cables and so on is rather physical and more metaphorical or metaphysical than I might like to think, does it really matter all that much?
*Space…ritual! Geddit? Oh, forgeddit.