A Lament on the Deafening Silence of iPods

by Meta Wagner

6 May 2009

I miss your impulse to play your music LOUD, to draw me in, to irritate and offend me – and I miss my impulse to do the same to you.
Photo (partial) found on Faktorial.com 

I miss listening to music.

I don’t mean my music—I listen to that all the time. My iTunes library follows me from my laptop to my docking station to my car port to just my iPod, which I’m constantly plugged into as I walk through the Boston Common or ride the “T”. I’m my own DJ, and I’ve created a portable homage to my own musical tastes.

But, I miss your music. You:  the stranger, the neighbor, the fellow commuter. You used to impose your music on me. Music of your choosing, not mine; music played at deafening decibels; music that bounced off buildings and flew out of car windows. Music that altered the molecules in the air.

Music that announced your presence in the world and demanded that I be affected by it. And I was.

When I was in college, music boomed through cinderblock walls and seeped under doorways and cascaded down the hall. Boys would place giant speakers in their windows facing into the quads, and blast Led Zep or The Clash or Donna Summer (yes, it was the rock meets punk meets disco era). It was the best way of announcing the start of the weekend or heralding that first perfect spring day after a long, harsh winter.

I spend nearly as much time on college campuses today as a professor and a parent, but I never hear music blasting—ever. To me, it’s like watching a movie with the volume on mute:  something essential to the picture is missing.

When I lived and worked in New York City in the ‘80s, music was played publicly, loud and often—in the streets, on the subway, at the beach—as both a celebration and a declaration.

One sweltering summer day, my soon-to-be-husband and I escaped our apartment to go to the inappropriately named Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn. As a Long Island girl, I was used to crowded beaches, but nothing had prepared me for this. There was less than one foot of space between each beach blanket.  People were quite literally in each other’s faces. But, even moreso, they were in each other’s airwaves.

Nearly every group of family or friends had a boombox, and each one was set to a different radio station, some in English, some in Spanish. Some playing pop, some disco, some salsa. It was like a battle of the bands at the beach. The roar of the ocean was drowned out by the cacophony of sounds.

In the city, young guys carried boomboxes on the street and into subway cars. The bigger, the better. The louder, the better. Spike Lee’s transcendent 1989 movie Do the Right Thing captures this place and time, when brandishing a boombox meant asserting one’s power. In one scene, Radio Raheem, who carries a boombox the size of a mini-fridge, has what could be called a “volume showdown” with the leader (by virtue of his boombox ownership) of a group of Puerto Rican kids. The boy eventually concedes defeat because his boombox cannot outperform Radio Raheem’s.

In the climactic scene, Radio Raheem blasts his boombox (which constantly plays Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) in Sal’s Pizzeria one last time before Sal smashes it into submission with a baseball bat, setting off a massive brawl that ends with an act of police brutality, resulting in an avoidable death.

In reality, the boombox was taken down not by a baseball bat, but by the SONY Walkman, which made private music-listening in public places a convenient and politically correct alternative to boomboxes. But because the Walkman only played one cassette at a time, it never ignited the music obsessiveness later sparked by the introduction of the iPod. Which brings us to today, a time when music has been silenced in the public sphere.

Photo (partial) found on  Nicholas Moenich.wordpress.com

Photo (partial) found on Nicholas Moenich.wordpress.com

I started this by saying that I miss your music, but that’s not entirely true. I miss it sometimes, and I’m glad to be without it and ensconced in my own music at other times. But what I miss more than your music is your impulse to play it out loud, to draw me in, to irritate and offend me. And I miss my impulse to do the same to you.

The revered writer Joan Didion, in her essay “Why I Write,” addressed how one can perpetuate art upon another person.  She writes, “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way,  change your mind.  It’s an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want … but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” 

I think the same could be said of playing music and foisting it upon others. Yes, it’s sometimes an act of aggression. But it’s also a means of connection. And that’s something that each of us hooked up to our iPod ‘ventilators’, like patients gasping for a musical intervention, simply can not experience.

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