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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
March 2000

Graceland

Men, we are told, are visual creatures. So why then does the two-channel-audio experience appeal to so many men and so few women? Is it the visual nature of the equipment? The sort of jargon in reviews, which is often based on visual phenomena? Is to something else entirely? If I knew the definitive answer to this question, I'd have marketing information more valuable than NOS output tubes.

But do such questions bring us closer to their answers or push us further away from them? I know that men don't appreciate music any more than women, and non-audiophiles too. I think the answer to the question that gender differences pose lies somewhere in the gulf between the music, which we know is the most important thing, and the gear, which is only a means to an end. High-end audio is an avocation with two distinct components, and neither, it seems, dominates -- except outside the hobby, where music becomes tonic for frayed nerves, company during the preparation of a meal or the paying of bills, or the cause of serious study. Probably my most blissful musical days were those while I was in graduate school. I had very little money (I lived in the metro Washington, DC area on $387 per month, $250 of which went for rent!), and so CDs were purchased very deliberately, almost like I would now buy a car. Consequently, I knew those discs, memorized their track sequences, remembered every riff and vocal inflection. I can even still remember how they made me feel then -- at peace and energized with possibility at the same time.

Probably the disc I knew better than any other was Paul Simon's Graceland, which I bought the first day it was available. If it would have been on vinyl, I would have worn out multiple copies through my frequent playing. A few of us graduate students would discuss the songs as though they were literary texts, dissecting intent and meaning as we would with the poems of Elizabeth Bishop or the novels of William Styron. Graceland was high art, and it still is.

However, Graceland is also a mediocre-sounding CD, which means it's not in my steady rotation these days. It sounded fine on my graduate-school system, which wasn't really a system at all, but it doesn't anymore. And that's OK these days. I have other favorites that I play -- although none of them approaches the frequency of my Graceland days.

But then I heard Graceland again, coming softly from the headphones of a cassette-based portable system, which is about as un-high-end as anything could be. And when the young woman who owned the system put the headphones back on, I knew I hit upon my editorial for this month, but I wasn't sure why.

I know now. I still want what Graceland offered me -- the simple enjoyment and intellectual stimulation of the days when that album and I were practically joined at the ear. The woman who owned the headphones was probably no older than I was when I first bought the album, and I would have asked her why she liked Graceland, but I already knew the answer. Connecting with the music, which is a deeper activity than merely listening, is not a gender thing, or age thing, but a particular frame of mind, a complete willingness to let the music be the boss. How, then, do all of our expensive boxes fit into the mix? They bring us closer in those times when the willingness wanes -- and they often bring us much closer, as you will see when a non-audiophile who loves music demonstrates when he or she is in the listening seat of a finely assembled audio system. You can see it in the eyes, which often close after a few minutes.

In my days of living on $387 a month, I couldn't think about high-end anything, much less high-end audio. But here I am years later, pushed along by a love of music and the access to high-quality equipment. So if you love this hobby and want to see it thrive, evangelize to the uninitiated, no matter their age or gender. We've all been there -- men and women.

...Marc Mickelson
editor@soundstage.com


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