How Hi the Good Life
of Madison Avenue's Fi?

by Jean Shepherd

The Village Voice - May 9, 1956

Jean Shepherd conducts a nightly all-night (12.30 - 5 a.m.) radio show for WOR Mutual, writes for Audio magazine, and is the progenitor of a recently issued Abbott LP album, "Into the Unknown." He has written this article especially for the Village Voice, at the request of its editors, and from time to time will be contributing other pieces to the newspaper.
A tall willowy girl sits crosslegged with her back to a Paul McCobb Directional casual bench. Her toreador pants are as taut as the windscreen lines of a Mercedes 300SL Super-sport which in many ways she herself resembles. Note the high-chiselled functional cheekbones and the finely molded gently sloping forehead; built for slicing the air as clean as a well-honed Swedish blade. She has Grand Prix bearing and assurance as well as implied performance to match. Her expression is a kind of half-opened-mouth-brush-backed casual-hair look beloved of the Bennington girl who has made the editorial staff of the best young fashion magazine. She thinks Harry Belafonte is authentic. Mabel Mercer is a great actress and does such wonderful things with Cole Porter. The Italian T shirt she wears is as black and real as the hair of Anna Magnani, the only film actress our girl cares to discuss. However, she saw "Marty" twice because it was about real people. Gazing out at us from behind her with exactly the same expression gleaming from its taut slide-rule dial is a low flat FM tuner (tuned to WQXR) with its matching amplifier. The picture is beautifully composed. Complete.

THE scene is not spun out of Karo Syrup but has appeared in countless issues of slick mags during the past year or so and will continue to do so for some time. Hi-fi has discovered youth and social symbol with a vengeance. To those who know the background and actual developmental history of hi-fi there is more than a small amount of irony in this fact. Hi-fi has become chic. It is now an end in itself instead of a mere means to an end. The ends now implied by the Madison Avenue ad-writers dealing in hi-fi are exactly the same as those who sell cosmetics, fashions, and California Cliff Houses. These ends can be roughly classified as youth, or recaptured youth, and social gains to be achieved by living in the much-sought-after contemporary way. The ends, at least as expressed in the ads appearing in mass media other than specialized hi-fi literature, seem to have little to do with fine music well reproduced. Naturally, some mention is made of music in most of the copy, but only in a vague and disarming way, so as not to alarm the Ray Anthony contingent. Instead, a good part of all hi-fi advertising space is taken up with photos or drawings illustrating the good life as exemplified by our toreador number. The cuts almost always show the equipment discreetly displayed in highly contemporary surroundings of unquestioned well-heeled success.

One Real Danger

All of this is harmless in itself except for one very real danger. And that danger is one that has a lot of good people in the booming hi-fi industry worried. They are afraid that they are likely to go the way of the automobile business in that the stylist and copy writer will take over in an area that should be the primary concern of the engineer. Long ago the sales people in Detroit learmed that more cars can be sold by the lavish use of chrome and wrap-around windshields than can ever be moved by a fine torsion-bar suspension system, in spite of the fact that such a system would make the family hack far more pleasant to drive and infinitely safer. The design engineer who is concerned with the automobile as a lethal moving projectile, which it is, is definitely lower in the Detroit scale of values than the stylist who can come up with jazzy lamé upholstering.

The hi-fi engineers are rapidly going the same way. More and more capital is being invested in gimmicky dial, cabinet design, and ad copy, while less dough is being spent on actual circuit design. This is not true of many of the old-line concerns whose whole reputations have been based on actual quality, but even they are beginning to show the influences of Madison Avenue. They have to do so in order to compete with the less scrupulous operators who have usurped the label "hi-fi" without taking over any of the responsibilities entailed in the use of such a term.

Almost anything capable of playing a record or tuning in a radio station today is called "hi-fi" by the copy writers. The term now has practically no meaning. Good equipment is certainly available to those who know how to select it, and at reasonable prices, but the problem for the one who desires genuine hi-fi on a limited budget is how to tell the real from the phony. Even price is no criterion, since several manufacturers are now bringing out stuff which sells up in the high brackets but which as hi-fidelity equipment is laughable. In fact, price is the last criterion that should be used in judging hi-fi, since there are several companies that turn out very low-cost material that actually rates technically with the most expensive. About the only advice that can be called valid for the prospective buy is to follow the hi-fi dope in such publications as Audio, Hi Fidelity, and perhaps the Saturday Review, and don't be afraid to ask questions over the counter of a genuine radio-supply house rather than the cash register of the appliance-and-TV department of a discount shop. A radio-supply house can be found by looking in the Yellow Pages. Even this system of buying is far from infallible, but at least it raises the chances of the average buyer to get a good hi-fidelity system at a decent price.

Above all, keep a good, sharp beady eye on the girl in the toreadors. She's a shifty one.

© 1956, The Village Voice, Inc.

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