If you’ve ever watched the USA Network series Suits, you’ve probably admired the natty three-piece duds worn by suavely aggressive lawyer Harvey Specter (played by Gabriel Macht). But you may have caught sight of something equally striking: that wall of vinyl in Harvey’s law office. Loaded up with new and vintage R&B, from the Spinners to Sharon Jones, the collection is meant to send a message to anyone who steps into his space: I may be a killer lawyer, but I have soul, literally and figuratively.
Whether the Suits creators intended it or not, that set décor also serves as a nostalgic throwback to those swiftly vanishing days when we would tell the world who we were by openly displaying our beloved records, books and movie collections. For me, the ritual began when I first left home. No sooner had I picked out my bed in my four-student dorm room than I began flaunting my tastes to my roommates: Annie Hall poster on the wall, E.L. Doctorow and James Kirkwood novels on a bookshelf, along with Neil Young and Rolling Stones LPs. Part of me liked having my favorite things around, but I also wanted my fellow college students, and anyone who dropped by our room, to know me by my taste. I wasn’t just some shy geek, but someone who loved smart movies, elegant fiction and “quality” rock ’n’ roll. (Yes, I was that insecure.)
For many of us, this tradition didn’t end when we picked up our diplomas. The formats changed: LPs gave way to compact discs, videocassettes to DVDs. (Books were still books, and the more weathered and dog-eared the better—it showed we’d actually read them.) But the concept was the same: These for-all-to-see picks were our personal signifiers, our way of telling the world we were what we devoured, at least until we matured a bit more. The practice also came in handy when assessing others. While doing a story on a musician I thought had impeccable taste, I’ll never forget spotting a Styx album in his record collection. Was he that hip after all? Or, more recently, I noticed a Glenn Beck book on a friend’s bookshelf. Yikes! Should I still socialize with this person?
In our ever-more-digital world, that tradition is joining the rotary phone or the roll of film you’d get developed at the drugstore. Increasingly, our entertainment choices are becoming byte-size, tucked away on our computers and mobile devices for only us to know and scrutinize. CD sales are plummeting (a 20 percent drop in the first half of 2014 alone). E-book sales are on the rise—over 500 million were sold last year—and more than 50 million people now subscribe to Netflix (exponentially more than about a decade ago). To find out what our friends are listening to, reading or watching, we’d have to hack into their iTunes, online-movie accounts or e-book readers, which probably isn’t worth the legal consequences.
Yet this tradition hasn’t actually died; like many things, it’s migrated to the web, social media in particular. Whether it’s a new song we just heard, an old one we’ve discovered for the first time or an episode of Game of Thrones we want to rave about, we can tell the world about it with a Facebook post or a pithy tweet. That concert photo you snapped on your phone? Stick it onto your Pinterest board. Show the world what songs you’ve been digesting by way of a “public playlist” on Spotify. Sites like Goodreads are the digital equivalent of a curated bookshelf. Assuming you have a lot of “friends,” more people than ever will know what piece of art has you psyched, as opposed to the few dozen buds who might trample through your home and check out your coffee table.
Of course, this reinvention of the I-am-what-I-consume ethos comes with a crucial qualifier. Thanks to the Internet, people can now proclaim their cultural loves, and all they symbolize in terms of self-image, without having to actually invest in said objects—in other words, they can lie a lot. Nowadays, you don’t have to go out and buy that Girls DVD or all-encompassing Beatles box set. Just post a link with a comment like, “Looks awesome!” Odds are that people who like and comment the most on Instagram or Facebook haven’t actually met their friends in the flesh, much less had the chance to peer in the dark corners of their bookshelves. Who could know the difference if the last song you listened to was sung by Celine Dion not Lykke Li, or if you post, “Can you believe how funny that Fallon musical skit was?” because it was #trending (not because you stayed up late enough to see it yourself). The only risk to this is being busted by those pesky high school friends who insist on an occasional reality check, prefaced by, “Wow, what happened to you?”
Is there any chance of a return to authenticity? As Harvey Specter’s office shows, vinyl has staged its own version of a comeback tour. The medium will never be what it was in the ’60s or ’70s, but four million vinyl LPs were snapped up during the first half of this year, almost double the amount of 2013 (and multiple times more than a decade ago, when the format was pretty much left for dead). When it comes to the latest Jack White or Tame Impala record, a new crowd—mostly college kids—recognizes the quality of old-school sound. And when someone asks, “What kind of music do you like?” they won’t have to log on. Like many of us once did, they can simply point to their wall and let the vibrantly designed pieces of 12-by-12 cardboard speak for themselves.