Reopening a dark chapter
READING IS SUBJECTIVE. IT’S rare that anything I’ve written receives the same feedback twice. When it happens, I pay attention. One chapter in my last book, Mutations, evoked just this response. The piece, “Please Don’t Stop the Muzak,” discussed the unfairness of mandatory music in public, and the singular weirdness of trying to square my own reactions with the indifference with which most of humanity seems to treat music in public spaces. I labored on this piece, trying to make my point as clean and clear as possible:
Why do I have to write any of this? The math here seems obvious. Don’t cram gum into other people’s mouths. Don’t make strangers sniff your fingers. Don’t force music onto people you don’t know.
For some readers, however, a mistranslation occurred. Several reviewers took me to task for hating pop music (I don’t) or ‘blaming’ millennials for something (I didn’t). One otherwise glowing review, written in Portuguese, described the Muzak chapter with the word ‘snobismo,’ which translates as ‘snobbery.’ Another wrote, ‘OK Boomer,’ which, in its dumbness, stung.1
These are observations, not complaints. Everyone deals with misinterpretation, especially writers. And when I’ve searched online for others like me, people struggling with mandatory music in public spaces, I find the same general types of comments aimed at my chapter. These comments seem to have three variations: 1. Contempt (“Wow. You hate music. I feel sorry for you”); 2. Pedantic (“Headphones were invented a while ago dude”). or 3: False Diagnostic (autism, usually meant in the spirit of the first two). It’s not autism. It's not misophonia, or tinnitus, or hyperacusis, or any other helpful(?) suggestion made online. The technical medical word for my condition, the condition triggered by mandatory music, is anger.
If you’re one of the readers baffled by my perspective—and all I know is that some unknown percent of you are—here’s a comparison that might help. The way that I feel about music in public is the way many, many people feel about Nickelback. Their song “How You Remind Me” played, on at least one radio station in America, at every second of the year 2000. And there are 31.5 million seconds in every year. Meaning, Americans were forced to listen to them without their consent. What if you lived in a world where the only music played in public was this song? Maybe, like me, you’d find yourself shuffling through supermarkets and doctors’ offices with earbuds blasting your chosen music, like someone desperately trying to drown out the voices in their head.2
TEN YEARS AGO, THE backlash to Google Glass, the first clumsy entry into consumer-grade Augmented Reality, spawned the insult ‘glasshole’ and a sustained backlash to wearable tech (or at least goofy looking wearable tech that advertised its threat to privacy). This dismissal masked the inevitability of Augmented Reality. And it is inevitable. There’s no other way this can go. The endpoint for all of this isn't ‘jacking in’ to an alternate reality. It will be the mundane act of slipping on a pair of regular old glasses, eyewear that will allow you to see anything and everything superimposed over your regular reality (but Oakley-wearing cops and Nazis will also be seeing whatever reality they want to see). AI might be the big story right now, but its advent will coincide with the dawn of AR.
Movies have given us a basic idea of what AR will look like: the inside of Iron Man’s visor, the view from the Terminator’s perspective. But science fiction hasn’t yet tackled how AR will sound. Once everyone inhabits their own augmented world, both networked and personalized, these private landscapes will include private soundtracks. AI can already curate playlists, and it’s on the cusp of writing and performing original music on demand. Google is currently working on ‘Brain2Music,’ an AI application that uses brain imaging data to create music. By the end of this decade, you’ll have the option of living your life with a soundtrack.
Just yesterday, I stepped into a local supermarket and was hit by a blast of Huey Lewis and The News, a 1980s artist many now associate with the protagonist of American Psycho. It was so loud I couldn’t remember why I’d walked in. The decibel counter on my phone clocked it at 77DB, the same volume as standing next to a vacuum cleaner. I briefly contemplated asking for the store manager’s contact—to be a good citizen??—but when I got to the register, the cashier and I had to raise our voices to hear each other, and all I wanted to do was pay and leave.
I can’t see this shit flying in a world where everyone has their own soundtrack to guide them through life. So I suppose I might actually get my way on this one. But it’s going to be a long slog.
In Becker, a boomer-written/produced/consumed CBS sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2004, protagonist Ted Danson plays an unrepentant racist. In one episode, he yells at someone blasting rap offscreen, from a fake car in the fake street outside the fake restaurant he has just entered. He leans out the front door and yells, “Hey! Or should I say ‘Yo?’” He orders them to be quiet or “better yet, get the hell out of here!”
Back inside, he monologues. “I don’t care if your taste in music is MC Rap Daddy Dog whatever, just don’t force me to listen to it. You know, I don’t drive by his house and blast James Taylor, do I?”
Jake, his best friend, who is blind and black and cheerfully allows Becker to mock him for both, says, “James Taylor? I know I’m blind John, but, uh, exactly how white are you?”
“About as white as your cane there, Blinky,” Danson says, stalking off to the laughter of actual sentient adult humans in the live studio audience.
So is this how I come off? Like Ted Danson in Becker? For the record: I fucking hate James Taylor.
And yet I’m somehow the weirdo for pointing out how much this all looks like social control. Ask yourself this; when was the last time you heard a pro-union song played at Starbucks?