armchair cultural observation since 1995

When music was necessarily social


“Of all the ways in which music changed over the course of the twentieth century, the most fundamental was the shift from being something people played to something they consumed and from being part of a larger experience to being a thing that is often heard alone and out of any set context. Audio recording, simply by existing, separated sound from performance. Until recording, music did not exist without someone playing it, and as a result music listening was necessarily social. There was no way to hear a musical group without other people being present — to play even a duet, there had to be two people in the room. It is hard to think about how different that must have been, as everyone reading this book has listened to music alone. Indeed, with Walkmans and MP3 players, it has become common to use music to shut out the rest of the world.” – Elijah Wald, in the book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music.”

One of the things I’ve noticed in recent years is how anti-social my music listening has become. When I was a teenager, I swapped CDs with friends in the lunchroom (you can still tell which ones in my CD rack because they have cracks in the jewel case), listened to seven inches in friends’ bedrooms and rarely attended a show alone. My groups of friends were all distinguished and labeled in part based on the music coming out of their Walkmans or crappy factory radios in the school parking lot. Live performances, especially ska shows in the mid-’90s that united indie-rockers, metal heads, punks and hardcore kids unlike anything else, were parties we didn’t have to clean up after or fabulate a stories about to explain broken family heirlooms. 

That’s rarely the case now. Outside of the internet and occasional shows where I know at least one of the members in the band, my music life is anything but social. Unless you count the times when my wife hears something that tickles her ears coming out of my speakers and asks me “what band is this?” 

Maybe it’s different for you because you live in a big city or have a significant other more socially invested in a music scene. But me, I long for the days when sharing music wasn’t so easy and impersonal, when even purchasing CDs was a task impossible to do without at least having to ask the record store clerk to turn the volume on the speed metal down. 

P.S. Do yourself a favor and check out the Elijah Wald book quoted above, either from your local library or bookstore.

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