I always thought that this was rap’s genius: taking the sounds of the street and turning them into art (says the white boy from the Heartland). While walking the streets of New York, however, albeit Manhattan, I realized that the relationship between the sound and the city was more complicated than that. These sounds were less to be incorporated and more to be overcome. Strumming your gee-tar is one thing if your audience is the well behaved and attentive bunch that frequents coffee shops, but if your audience uses the street corner as their living room (with a nod toward The Wire for crystallizing the point), then your sound better rise above. Strumming isn’t going to cut it.
This is how in those grid-walking days I found myself consumed with Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Jay Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Clipse, Ludacris, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. Curiously, I eschewed the West Coast rap I had grown up with. I wanted no part of Dre or Snoop or Ice Cube. Fairly or not, I associated that with car culture. Impalas and hydraulics. Dragging Crenshaw. I mean, I saw Boyz n the Hood. I understood the scene. What I wanted was city music. Nothing smooth. Big beats. Something to cut through all of the shit.
I thought about my boom box abandoned years ago I know not where. It’s state-of-the-artnesss stubbornly refusing to decompose somewhere. I realized that, as bombastic and overwhelming as it seemed to me at the time, it was really just a tame version of the beasts that roamed the street. Beasts/beats. The box’s ancestors are the sound of community. The version in my room a stunted incarnation of the original, damned to record the filler between commercials. If it was a Pixar movie, the story of my boom box would have been its escape from the confines of my bedroom and the freedom it felt back on the streets where it belonged. I was ashamed of myself for not defying my dad. The least I could have done was turn it around in the window.
The irony, of course, was that now that I was closer than ever to the source of the beats that gave purpose to stereos across the land, I was listening to them through earbuds. Here I was drawing grand conclusions about the symbiotic relationship between the city, the technology, and the music, and I was bypassing the streets themselves in favor of pumping the music directly into my own ears. This social experience monopolized. Those irrepressible beats domesticated.
I’m a house party of one.
I’m loathe to admit where I’ve gone from there and in such a short amount of time. Earbuds for me are already as much a part of the past as those Walkman that would let you play side two without even flipping the tape over. In their place are these headphones that make me feel like I have two pillows strapped to my head. They’re Bose. Padded with the first locks of a newborn’s hair. Silver like a car James Bond would drive. Together with my 80 gig iPod Classic, they are the sexiest things I own. What can I say? Even Nation of Millions grows stale when it’s been out too long.
The wife got the headphones for me for my birthday a couple of years ago. She’s in the city now, after only a year of that other ridiculousness. When she gave them to me she said, “If you get hit by a car because of these I’ll kill you.” Her logic is a little faulty, but her point is well taken. These things void the city completely. I no longer miss a word of “This American Life” when the train pulls into the station. What’s more, I wear them constantly. I’m the asshole who keeps them on when he steps onto the elevator. If I was on the elevator and I saw me get on, I’d hate myself.
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Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes. Sensitive boys with guitars and beards. What breakthrough story have you heard in the last year that didn’t start with “Well, we just took a bunch of songs with us to a cabin in the woods and when we came back out we had a record”? I guess you could listen to this stuff in the car, but not with the windows rolled down. I guess you could listen to it in the living room, but not if you wanted to talk about it. I love that new album by the Antlers, but unless I’m mainlining, I can’t hear half of what that fucker says, and even then it’s only every fifth word. In all of those nights listening to music together, Dana and I never once said, “Hush!”
These bands demand that the listener matches their introspection. They don’t want to sing to you as much as they want to whisper into your ear.
* * *
As if this isn’t bad enough, I’ve also recently been told that my disappointment with a number of high-profile recordings is the result of me not listening carefully enough through my headphones. As if the headphones are a prerequisite for truly enjoying the album. I’m as bad as the people who saw Avatar in 2D.
When I dare balk at the genius of Animal Collective or the Dirty Projectors or the new Flaming Lips, I’m told, “You really have to listen to it through a good pair of headphones. It sounds so much better that way.” The sad thing is that they’re right. Embryonic is a perfectly fine listen coming through my speakers at home, but it’s downright symphonic when I get it one-on-one. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a fair amount of intense headphone scrutiny during last year’s mono vs. stereo debate with the Beatles re-issues (the audiophiles are right, the mono is better).
Yet I still can’t shake this sense of loss. Unless I go to a show, I don’t listen to music with people anymore. My 18-month-old son and I usually do a slow dance before bed—“Tender”, by Blur, is as soporific as any lullaby—and my wife and I will crack a bottle of red with the latest Dylan or Andrew Bird release, but otherwise it’s just me and the music.
The cruelest part of all is that music has never been more available. I have bands on my iPod that I’ve never heard of. I don’t even know how they got there. I land on them twice a year, consider deleting them, then think No, what if I like them, and then forget about them until I discover them again six months later and start the whole process over. But can you blame me if stuff gets oozed ached over and then forgotten? There’s scarcely time to digest the Next Big Thing Before the Next Bigger Thing comes along.
But there’s a difference between sharing files and sharing music, a difference that had never been starker for me than it was last Thanksgiving.
My wife and I took our son out to San Diego. Dana had never met Jonah. I had never met the second of his two boys. Simply put, it had been too long.
We were there for five days. The time was packed with family, yard work, preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, going to the park, playing Wiki. One night we did get out to Soma for some live music, which was cool. Every time we sat down to listen to some music, however, we were interrupted or it just didn’t take for one reason or another.
Then, on the last day, my bags were packed and by the door. Dana fires up the computer and says, “Here”. He accesses an external hard drive, scrolls through, and tells me what’s worth it, what’s not, and what he hasn’t heard yet. The volume is astounding. Everything the Rolling Stones ever recorded. Everything by the Kinks, the Ramones, the Beatles, Metallica, AC/DC, Zeppelin, the Cure. Albums by Holly Golightly, the Muslims, Preston School of Industry, Daft Punk, the Jam, A Tribe Called Quest. He’s into this ‘70’s rock thing right now, so there was some Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Boston, Seals and Croft. I can’t tell if he’s being ironic or earnest. I think earnest. He’s embraced his role as a family man, and I think it’s of a piece. Family man. Somehow in the end it all comes back to Hall and Oates.
As I faced all of that music, I couldn’t help but think about those all-nighters from before. What we wouldn’t have given for such access. Back then, victory was hearing your favorite song on the radio. We’d coerce our parents to drive us 20 miles for a rare recording, an import. And now it was all here, right in front of me. Just a click away.
A click and a drag.
Then I could listen to all of this music all by myself.