Review of Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017
440 pp., illus., 147 col. Trade, US$34.95
In the contemporary world, where music can be streamed anytime, anywhere, from "the cloud," many readers may not remember when well-appointed midcentury American living rooms included a high-fidelity (hi-fi) console, complete with amplifier, stereo receiver, speakers, and a record player.
Near to hand would have been vinyl record albums. In their recent book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder argue that record albums included learning opportunities for Americans aspiring to embrace the modern postwar consumer culture.
The authors suggest that following the 1959 debate between United States Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev—televised live as they lingered over lemon-yellow kitchen appliances at the opening of the American National Exhibition, in Moscow—American homes became the front lines of the Cold War. For the Soviet Union, success meant technological systems benefiting all citizens, transportation systems, health care, housing programs. For America, success was the ability of individuals to buy cars, appliances, and suburban homes.
The individual home in midcentury America became a place of retreat, a place to entertain, to mix drinks, cook food, display good taste. But how to do this? Surprisingly, help came in the form of the humble record album cover.
Borgerson and Schroeder examine nearly 150 LP covers, some featuring the work of famous designers, photographers, and painters. They also provide careful readings of liner notes. Together, their efforts provide a revisionary examination of a hidden agenda for distributing cultural tropes through record albums and their covers.
Borgerson and Schroeder divide their book into two sections: "Home" and "Away." Both offer interesting glimpses into the American postwar imagination. In the "Home" section Borgerson and Schroeder examine record albums with titles like Cocktail Time, Music for a Chinese Dinner at Home, and The Perfect Background Music for Your Home Movies. These and other record albums provided information and guidance on how to impress one's guests through tasteful entertainment skills.
Liner notes, all carefully crafted, provided details for embodying the ideal American lifestyle based within participatory capitalist democracy. How to dress for backyard barbecue parties. Where to buy live lobster. Gardening. Card parties. Patio parties. Images on the record covers showed the ideal results. Liner notes provided the details. The music itself, experienced by listening to the record, provided background and/or backdrop. Visual and aural information were designed to market one's sense of the ideal home and domestic space.
The "Away" section examines record albums that provided information on how to travel to and interact with foreign cultures. Examples include Honeymoon in Hawaii, Strings for a Space Age, and Cairo! The Music of Modern Egypt.
Stylish vacations are encouraged. Jet airplane travel is celebrated as offering new levels of consumer choice. Travel to new locations confronts one with new norms. The music, pictures, and information provided by these record albums prepared American tourists for their travels in foreign lands, as well as outer space.
A major theme throughout Designed for Hi-Fi Living is that record albums, perhaps seen primarily as popular, even mundane, artifacts of mass culture in postwar America, were, in fact, designed to teach American consumers how to form and reinforce family bonds, how to entertain at home, and how to travel away from home. Seen through this lens, midcentury record albums were cultural windows, each providing an essential information distribution format.
Borgerson and Schroeder contend that midcentury record albums offered compelling visions for incorporating style, home, and travel into mainstream American society. Their book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living, offers a view of this vision, a way to illustrate the role of the vinyl LP in developing contemporary American consumer culture.