Yesterday, when for the fifth time I was forced to avoid a rapidly approaching, earphone-wearing, phone-fixated zombie, it occurred to me that something had gone pretty wrong.
I remember the first time I was really blown away by my Walkman. It was Thomas Dolby’s samples on Joni Mitchell’s song ‘The Three Great Stimulants’. Those clanging industrial sounds seemed to be physically encroaching on me.
Then there were a few other striking sonic details only revealed by close Walkman listening, including Donald Fagen’s stereo-traversing reverb vocals on Steely Dan’s ‘The Caves Of Altamira’.
The Walkman was the beginning of the truly solipsistic musical experience. But back then headphone listening definitely seemed a musical experience, designed for quiet contemplation rather than moving around the bustling big city (despite Cliff’s sojourn through Milton Keynes in the superbly naff ‘Wired For Sound’ video).
I took it to be an aural not psychological phenomenon – it was for wading into the music, not blocking out the world. (Actually a lot of ’80s music seems made for headphone listening. Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues and Dolby’s The Flat Earth spring to mind. Is that true of music now? Isn’t it just loud then quiet, or quiet then loud? Does this matter?)
Spotify’s MD Daniel Ek sums things up very well: ‘We are in the moment space, not the music space’. In other words, every important life ‘moment’, every emotion, should be accompanied by music. Or there’s probably something wrong with you.
This might be something to celebrate for musicians – it is, to a degree, but only a tiny percentage of artists are making money from streaming services. Taken to its extreme, it’s another weapon in the war on reality, another mode of desensitization. We are sleepwalking into trouble. We must be mindful. As JG Ballard said, there are danger signs ahead.
A fear of robots? Maybe we are the robots. As we walk around in a zombified state, we are losing touch with each other. Street banter is disappearing. Philosopher Michael Sandel recently wrote in his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy’: ‘Altruism, generosity, solidarity and civic spirit are like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of the market-driven society is it lets these virtues vanish.’
Remember when you rushed to the shops to buy an album? We might do well to keep that excitement about music. It’s not wallpaper or the soundtrack to the mundanities of life. To paraphrase Bill Shankly, it’s far more important than that.