In an era when everything musical is available all the time, I'm still puzzling why I ordered an overwhelmingly large box set of recordings by the French chanteuse Edith Piaf.
You could've mistaken it for a new computer printer. But instead, the ten-pound box contained 20 CDs and 413 songs by Edith Piaf, also known as "The Little Sparrow," who, died in 1963. Impulsively, I ordered this collection, titled Edith Piaf 1915-2015, after it won this year's Grammy award for best box set—and then realized how much it's in step with our times.
The commodity here isn't music, but an era. The album is like a time capsule allowing you into entire post-World War II France in surprisingly tangible ways. The package contains 3-D cardboard cutout portrayals of scenes from Piaf's life, from the gritty streets to the great concert halls.
The other surprise is how the meaning of her recordings has evolved. I once valued her for her brand of emotional agitation. Piaf was sort of the anti-Julie Andrews. Now, Piaf's astoundingly precise rhetoric is what thrills as she drills down to the molten core of every song, even in this recording made weeks before she died.
Produced by the Warner label, the extravagant packaging creates an artistic event in a time when commercial music is so casually accessed from invisible files and clouds. Back in the LP days, buying an album for its cover was hopelessly superficial. Now, it means you're cool. So does this mean I can talk about Edith Piaf on the air and people won't think I'm odd?