On My Playlist

A sunny day in Venice, California, I leave home on foot wearing earphones that plaster an artificial soundtrack upon the life I pass. I enjoy the music I’ve selected, yet feel unsettled by not hearing the natural sounds of the scene around me. The beach without the roll and crash of ocean waves. Children running and playing, lips moving but emitting silence like home movies of decades past. And in seeing how my imported soundtrack alters the landscape, I recognize how much we impact our daily experiences through simple actions.

Music has long been a passion of mine, not only enriching my life in the obvious ways but also tugging at my heart, evidenced by a musician ex-husband and an accumulation of musical love interests that preceded him. But despite my affection for both music and technology, I was slow to embrace the iPod. I found countless reasons to stay away. I like the tactile and the tangible, and was loathe to relegating my CDs to dust-collecting shelves. I didn’t want to spend hours loading music and creating playlists. I romanticized my bond to having one CD spin over and over as the soundtrack to that day’s (or week’s or month’s) creative venture. And I’ve never been a fan of headphones.

But coaxed by my son and gifted by my mother, I found myself in possession of an iPod and speakers.

My iPod and I have developed a fine relationship. I’ve turned to my in-house DJ to create my playlists because I’m not anal enough to be so precise. Luckily, my son is, and he knows me well enough to create Mama’s Party Mix. I’m thrilled to have all my music in one handy rectangular contraption, and my CDs are in fact collecting dust. I applaud this technological progress.

But before the day on the beach, I hadn’t turned to headphones. And after my experience that day, I doubt I’ll use them much in the future. While many people simply enjoy having music or podcasts or books-on-tape serenading them on the go, others rely on headphones as a protective shield against unwanted intrusions.

I may not welcome all the commotion of city life – the horn honks or the squeal of tires, the shouting homeless guy or the wailing baby – but these sounds inform my life. And I question what we lose in order to maintain control over our environment, to constantly choose to bounce down the street oblivious to society’s natural incursions. The man sitting next to me as I drink coffee may be rudely shouting his opinions, but forcing myself to listen teaches me about those with whom I may never socialize. Or learning how to ask him to speak more quietly teaches us to better interact with each other.

I understand the desire to keep the unwanted out, but going through life in headphones keeps everything out, other than our carefully filtered selections, and I just don’t think that’s good for us as a society. Or as a species.

I should be forced to overhear the politics of my neighbor. I should hear the homeless person ranting or the assault of the chaos of my city, for only by encountering things that we may not like are we motivated to enact change. Only via a “Hello” to a passerby do we reach outside our world. But if we’re all armored in headphones – or with cellphones pressed to our ears – we miss these opportunities for engagement.

If we always opt to tune out that which is unpleasant, we may protect ourselves, but we also limit ourselves. I want to give an unanticipated birdcall a chance to intrude. Or a gust of laughter. As much as I love my music, I love the audible serendipity of life more.


Anonymous said...

I absolute agree with you. I don't own an iPod. I spend so much time in my car driving around listening to the radio, that I find it pleasurable to actually hear "reality" when I'm walking around.

Rachel said...

I'm an iPod lover and adore it. Since getting a docking station thingy for it, no headphones, and it is amazing how much more you pick up on without the little things stuck in your ears

Willie Baronet said...

Great post, and in general I am so there with you. The main time I am ipod bound is at the gym. One notable exception: while hiking in the White Cloud Mts in Idaho, on a hike I'd done many times, I listened to The Thrills and had a magical (if not surreal) experience.

I still love your writing. :-)

Girlplustwo said...

i agree. sometimes it's the sounds between the sounds, or the music of the mundane that can speak to us the most.

Emily said...

Great thoughts again. It seems like there's already so much isolation in this world, perhaps the iPod adds one more layer.

Anonymous said...

I will only wear my headphones when exercising, I choose to leave the pod at home when I travel into the city and on public transport. One of my favorite things to do on these journeys is watch and listen, you hear amazing things and what a shame to miss out on all that.