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University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ray Bradbury talks about this in one of his novels: a society is encased within itself, paying little if any attention to its community members.
Sometimes at the gym, when I have to ask if someone is using a machine, I first have to get the person’s attention, wait for him or her to unplug, and then proceed with my question. I don’t mind the wait, but it still makes me think about the power of sound—to motivate, to isolate.
A woman at the gym recently stomped in from outside and declared she couldn’t run that morning. I asked if she had hurt something. “No,” she declared. “My iPod isn’t working.”
When I run, I like silence. I stay away from busy roads and crowded playgrounds because running is my time to think, to pray, or to leave my mind free. I have enough to think about while at work or at home, and during that half hour when my feet pound pavement, I deserve silence. I feel I’m a better person for it—more clear-headed, focused, and patient. I reserve music for the car, where I can’t seem to drive without a beat moving me toward my destination. Perhaps this is why I don’t understand why it seems like the newest generation of college goers—born in the early nineties, into a world with the Internet—needs to be plugged in constantly.
A few semesters ago, during my fiction workshops, students would come in listening to their iPods, remove the earplugs for class, plug them back in during the break, unplug for class, and then replug before going home. I suppose I should be grateful they unplugged at all, but it made me reflect on their reliance on amusement. I asked some of them why they needed to be plugged in so often. The answers ranged from how they didn’t want to be bothered by anyone else to the admission that life was better with the music.
Incidentally, my international students—mostly Middle Eastern and East Asian—don’t come into class listening to iPods.
I understand the need for music; I married a composer. Before Greg came into my life, I was a connoisseur of what I considered good music. In high school, it was REM, the Pixies, Pearl Jam. In college, I saw the Counting Crows, Patty Griffin and Sixpence None the Richer live. In graduate school, I found myself listening mostly to spiritual music—Marty Goetz, Paul Wilbur, Bebo Norman. Since I was a child, I’ve taken with me Paul Simon, James Taylor, America.
I can call up an emotion, a memory, even a smell, if I play any of these artists. The Pixies take me back to my 1982 BMW 320i (with a racing dash and rack-n-pinion steering) where I dropped off Nicole and Kisa at their parents’ houses before going back to my parents’ before curfew. Patty Griffin will lead me back to college, to my Toyota Corolla (the $10/gallon get-to-Phoenix-from-LA on one tank) and my roommate Wendy, to our emergence into womanhood, our first mistakes with men we shouldn’t have trusted. Marty Goetz ushers me back to my Saturn coupe, parked next to the beach, where I sank deep in worship, something I learned to do effortlessly while living alone in New York.
I get that people identify, even escape, with music. I get that at the gym most people just need a good beat.
The music at the gym typically isn’t music I prefer. I love when they play MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. I like it when they play Weezer. But, lately, it’s this new sound of dance music, with repetitive harmonies and the same lyric—oftentimes unintelligible “English”—spoken/sung over and over and over and over—not unlike a trance—and I don’t get it.
Mozart said music’s sole purpose is to bring pleasure. Most musicians would claim that their music seeks to tell a story—with or without words. Perhaps musicians believe that their music is an expression of their identities. In turn, their music evokes the pleasures, reflects the stories, and shapes the identities of their listeners. Maybe we’ve always needed music and, since this generation has the ability to listen to it at will—regardless of where they are—it makes sense to listen to it all the time. Why not feel continuous pleasure, engage in endless storytelling, or constantly identify with a likeminded other?
Bradbury may have been foreshadowing a dystopian society when he wrote of a community of self-seekers, those who could not look up or beyond their own interests. Maybe, in a lot of cases, this is true.
This morning, at the gym, I was doing planks on a mat next to two freshman girls. Neither was plugged in. One girl mentioned to the other how her mom was visiting this weekend. The other confessed her jealousy and then reminded herself that Thanksgiving is near. Both mentioned at least twice how much they loved their moms.
I found myself tearing up, and I turned to them and smiled. They asked me about the planks, so I showed them all the cool moves I’d learned from my trainer this past summer. I told them how much I admired them for loving their mothers so much, so openly.
The music was low and we could talk to each other freely.
“I have two daughters,” I told them. “It’s good to hear that not all children think their parents suck.”
They nodded and joined me in working out our obliques. I told them they were doing a great job, that soon enough they’d get the lines in their stomach. They would see the results of their work. They giggled in anticipation.
I thought about Ray Bradbury’s world again, how at times he seemed to be a prophet, that perhaps doom does await our society of selfish, illiterate, simple-minded, machine-bound people. Then I recalled reality, the world in which I live: there are those who are selfish and illiterate; they hate and don’t want much to do with anyone else. There are also those who still interact with strangers, who love their mothers, who can plug in or remain in silence. It’s not an either-or.
While plugging in, music allows us to engage with the melody that attends best to our personalities, our moods, even our identities. After unplugging, it’s our responsibility to emerge from our cocoons and connect with each other. We can and should do both.