The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of n+1 magazine. It is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to purchase n+1 in print.
Two years ago, at the nadir of the financial crisis, the urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondered aloud in the New York Times why no mass protests had arisen against what was clearly a criminal coup by the banks. Where were the pitchforks, the tar, the feathers? Where, more importantly, were the crowds? Venkatesh's answer was the iPod: "In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the 'mob mentality.' Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can't join someone in a movement if you can't hear the participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change." Venkatesh's suggestion was glib, tossed off—yet it was also a rare reminder, from the quasi-left, of how urban life has been changed by recording technologies.
The concern that recorded music promotes solipsism and isolation isn't new. Before the invention of the record and the gramophone (1887), the only form of listening people knew was social; the closest thing to a private musical experience was playing an instrument for yourself, or silently looking over a score. More often, if you had the means, you got to sit in the panopticon of the concert hall, seeing and being seen to the accompaniment of Verdi—an experience most fully described by Edith Wharton in the opening scene of The Age of Innocence (1920), just as it was going out of style. With mechanical reproduction came the hitherto unimaginable phenomenon of listening to multi-instrumental music by yourself. How, a contributor to Gramophone magazine asked in 1923, would you react if you stumbled upon somebody in the midst of this private rapture? It would be "as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair. People, we think, should not do things 'to themselves,' however much they may enjoy doing them in company."
But it wasn't only solitary hyper-listening that recording facilitated. By 1960, recorded popular music had begun, in mysterious ways, to promote new social movements. Former Black Panther Bobby Seale recounts in his memoir how Huey Newton developed an elaborate reading of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" as an allegory of race: "This song Bobby Dylan was singing became a very big part of that whole publishing operation of the Black Panther paper. And in the background, while we were putting this paper out, this record came up and I guess a number of papers were published, and many times we would play that record." The song wasn't overtly political but its mood of stately menace seems to have insinuated itself into the politics of the Panthers.
The '60s were a decade of both mass protests and mass concerts, and this was more than a coincidence. Barbara Ehrenreich has suggested that the roots of second-wave feminism could be found in the tens of thousands of shrieking girls who filled arenas and ballparks at the Beatles' American stops, from the Hollywood Bowl to Shea. These girls, unladylike, insistent, were going to scream for what they wanted. Social change drove musical experimentation, and—more remarkably—vice versa.
The music of this era was—it's worth repeating—an incitement to social change. It was the sound of not going reflexively to war, of mingling across class and racial lines, of thinking it might be all right to sleep around a little, of wanting to work a job that didn't suck.
Of course the radical hopes of the '60s collapsed. The highest-rated YouTube comment on a video of Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome" manages to be both smug and glum: "Though we obviously failed, I am so glad that I am of a generation that believed we could make a difference." By the early '70s, popular music had more or less forfeited its capacity to promote social movements. From then on its different varieties would be associated with defining lifestyle niches, consumer habits, and subcultural affiliations. In this way the make-it-new modernist imperative, which seized pop music several decades late, came to seem little different from the program of advertisers launching fresh product lines. Jadedness swept pop music enthusiasts, many of whom, heartbroken by their brief glimpse of collective life, would discount the whole era of the '60s as history's cunning preparation for a descent into hellish consumerism. Welcome to dystopia, a counterfeit heaven where music plays all the time.
The first to ring the alarm about the omnipresence of recorded music were classical music snobs who, as part of their contracted duties as university professors, had to spend time on college campuses. "This is being written in a study in a college of one of the great American universities," wrote George Steiner in 1974. "The walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music coming from one near and several more distant amplifiers. The walls quiver to the ear or to the touch roughly eighteen hours per day, sometimes twenty-four." Allan Bloom picked up the beat in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): "Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music. …. Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music." Steiner: "It matters little whether it is that of pop, folk or rock. What counts is the all-pervasive pulsation, morning to night and into night, made indiscriminate by the cool burn of electronic timbre." The only historical analogy Bloom could think of was to the Wagner cult of the late 19th century. Yet even world-conquering Wagner appealed to a limited class, who could only hear his works in opera houses. By contrast the music of the late-20th-century world was truly ubiquitous. Steiner: "When a young man walks down a street in Vladivostok or Cincinnati with his transistor blaring, when a car passes with its radio on at full blast, the resulting sound-capsule encloses the individual." Bloom: "There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels devoted to them, on the air, nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place—not public transportation, not the library—prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying." Steiner: "What tissues of sensibility are being numbed or exacerbated?"
Yadda, yadda. Yet Bloom and Steiner were right! In fact they had no idea how right they would become. If the spread of home stereo equipment in the 1970s, followed by that of portable devices (the boom box, the Walkman, briefly the Discman), brought music to the masses in a new way, digitization and the iPod have made recorded music even more plentiful and ubiquitous. The fears in Bloom's time that cassette tapes would bring down the music industry are quaint now, in the face of trillions of bytes of music traded brazenly over the Internet every minute. So, too, does the disc mania of record collectors pale in the face of digital collections measured in weeks of music. A DJ's crate of 100 LPs amounts to about three days of straight listening; your standard 60-gigabyte iPod, 50 days. Has anyone these days listened to all of their music, even once through?