Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder. Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press. 2017.
Borgerson and Schroeder argue that the cover art and liner notes to midcentury vinyl LPs shaped modern American identity and global citizenship during the Cold War by offering “instruction for achieving aspects of contemporary and aspirational lifestyles that included backyard garden patios, adventurous dinners at home, as well as travel to places far away” (2). They argue that these lifestyles did not come “naturally” to Americans, as common wisdom suggests. Rather, perhaps shockingly, they note that albums such as RCA Victor’s Music for a Backyard Barbeque actually had to teach Americans how to barbeque. Specifically, the authors demonstrate how vinyl LPs instructed Americans how to participate in Western democratic, and particularly capitalist, lifestyles. Backyard barbeques, for instance, provided a metaphor for capitalism’s successes. Americans could own their own home, have leisure time to grill, and enjoy the freedom to buy the type of food they desired when they wanted it. In another chapter, Borgerson and Schroeder show how vinyl LPs also “sold” depictions of midcentury industrial designs by George Nelson, Ray and Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen. In Relaxing with Perry Como, for instance, the liner notes mention (i.e. advertise) the chair on the cover (Bertoia chair, courtesy of Knoll Associates), but not the model sitting in it. The authors argue that the prevalence of modernist furniture in these LPs not only demonstrated that the United States could combat Soviet expansion with its own aesthetic and cultural contributions, but provided another metaphor for capitalism’s possibilities. The sleek, minimalist, lightweight, designs of midcentury furniture evoked “moveable” wealth, which ideally, traveled with their owners to new, often bigger or more luxurious, locations as income and financial security rose over a lifetime.
These LPs also not only instructed Americans how to live domestic lives, but also become world travelers. Airlines and travel companies often released LPs that featured destination-tinged easy listening and albums such as Honeymoon in Paris, which contained liner notes written by travel journalists, opened American eyes, ears, and wallets to faraway lands and nourished the modern travel and leisure industry. In the latter half of their section on world travel, the authors expand their definition of “world” to include space travel and its Cold War context. Although the Soviets beat the United States to space with their launch of Sputnik, albums such as Audio Fidelity’s Strings for a Space Age nevertheless narrated the American ambition to lead the world into the outer reaches.
More than describing how vinyl informed American lifestyles during the 1950s and 1960s, Designed for Hi-Fi Living provides pertinent and relevant context for understanding a renewed vinyl boom in the digital age. Borgerson and Schroeder note that as China and India are challenging the place of the United States in global economy, many Americans are noticing the cracks in what they had previously perceived as normal and enduring American economic hegemony. In response, sociologists Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodword argue that many Americans revert back to vinyl because it gives a perceptually stable form to our feelings that often get dimmed by the passage of time and changes within ourselves. By studying midcentury vinyl and its role in creating modern American culture, Borgerson and Schroeder provide a timely and relevant study that might help explain Americans’ renewed fascination with not only vinyl, but with everything midcentury modern (as demonstrated by the popularity of Ikea).