Friday, April 1, 2011

iPod Culture and the History of Listening

Slate excerpted an essay from the journal n+1 this week, on the iPod and its historical meaning, by Nikil Saval. It caught my attention, especially since I just spent the past eight years writing a book (Listening and Longing, coming Fall 2011 from Wesleyan University Press) about music listening in the 19th century. Certainly, we live in a music culture in which listening has long had a distinct role, and in the past decade or so, that role appears to have become more visible. Have mp3 devices like the iPod changed us? How might we measure such a change?

Saval approaches the iPod from the perspective of social theory, something that’s clear from his statement that “in the 20th century, the two most considered attempts to connect music and society were those of the philosopher Theodor Adorno and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.” No ethnomusicology, here--nor more recent sociological work by Tia DeNora or Michael Bull. While he rightly notes that Adorno avoided empirical evidence, and that Bourdieu failed to see how music pluralism might create its own kind of class hierarchy, these criticisms appear to be only a polite deference to skeptical readers; in the last instance, he agrees with Adorno (and Allan Bloom, for that matter): We live in “a counterfeit heaven where music plays all the time," but “we're not even listening.”

The judgments of social theory don’t involve actual people, which, I suppose, makes this sort of assertion safe from the messiness of accounting for experience. Nevermind that there are people on the street right now, to whom one could ask, “Why do you listen to your iPod so much?,” and from whom one would receive many considered and richly complex answers that may contradict the notion that people are “not even listening.”

My main criticism, however, is actually with the history presented in the essay. I very much appreciate Saval’s serious attention to the cultural behavior of music listening (something, as he points out, almost entirely absent from both academic and journalistic music criticism). And I am impressed with his emphasis on the fact that listening is always historical--that is, not a biological given but a complex set of interpretive moves on the part of listeners, which are themselves influenced by changing ideologies and institutions. But in his attempt to place iPod listening in that history, I would argue that he oversimplifies.

For Saval, it all comes down to Berliner’s Gramophone. In particular, he says, “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.” The gramophone, in his view, facilitated a new era of “solitary hyper-listening,” broken only by a brief and failed utopian moment in the 1960s, when  members of the counterculture believed that music could be a means to bring people together for social change.

This is not a new historical formulation; the advent of sound recording figures as a significant epochal dividing line in most textbooks on communications history, as well as the history of American music. But besides the fact that it is doubtful that the mere novelty of the phonograph was powerful enough to unilaterally determine lasting shifts in people’s daily behavior, (or that no music motivated 20th century social movements outside of the 1960s counterculture), I think we really need to interrogate the notion that recording technology was primarily a source of private and introverted musicality and that the public concert was primarily a source of shared experience and sociality.

The 19th-century music lovers I’ve studied, for example, frequently reported feeling alone in their passion for music. While they listened at concerts in the midst of friends and family, they insisted that their listening was individual; their friends did not hear the same sounds and were not moved in the same way. The longing music lovers felt, as they awaited the next visit of an orchestra, was a little embarrassing; rather than risk condemnation or ridicule, they recorded their concert experiences privately in their diaries.

Even if we accept that music listening in the 19th century was more fundamentally social compared to iPod use in the  21st century, the question remains: social how? There were different kinds of social relationships between audiences and performers, between audiences and works, and among audience members at urban concerts from their emergence in the 1830s through the early 20th century. Elites coyly displaying the latest fashion at a recital, young clerks sitting in an astonished hush while witnessing a virtuoso, and bourgeois reformers enacting the ideal of an educated citizenry through reverent listening were all participating socially in music events but with different motivations and beliefs about what that participation entailed and what it meant.

Our analyses of iPod listening ought to at least hold open the possibility that what’s going on is as equally layered as concert listening in the 19th century. Saval rightly asks, "We need a way to find out what all this music listening is doing to us, or what we're doing with it." But his discussion doesn't quite get at the latter as much as it might. The essay ends with his own dismay at “ubiquitous music” and a call to reject "the obscure social injunction that condemns us to a lifetime of listening." This strikes me as little different than John Philip Sousa's call for Americans to reject the phonograph back in 1906. Sousa couldn't see the point of canned music, relative to amateur performance, but his readers did; the phonograph did not, as he predicted, end the piano lesson or the marching band or, for that matter, Americans' interest in music. In the case of the iPod, the same might be true. People may be listening to more music than ever, and frequently doing so through earbuds, but they are likely making sense of that behavior, relative to other forms of musical participation, in ways that scholars are only beginning to explain.

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