On Active Listening

Our Music Editor, Rachel Demy, reminds us that listening is a transformative action that can cultivate change in how we hear music and each other.
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Original Artwork by Rosie Bowker

Original Artwork by Rosie Bowker

Nothing will make me walk out of a restaurant faster than these five words: “We have live music tonight.”

Live music in a restaurant feels more threatening to me than a C on their public health grade. I would 100% choose a higher chance of salmonella if it means I can eat in peace. It may be hyperbolic, but being forced to choose between conversation with someone I love across the table and a well-meaning musician baring their soul feels like an emotional hostage situation. Nobody wins. Not me; not that poor bastard strumming in the corner to a room of ambivalent masticators; and certainly not my dinner date who has to listen to a Curb-Your-Enthusiasm-level rant about the impossibility of finding quietude in public spaces.

It isn’t because I dislike listening to music. I just prefer silence over half-listening to music, because there is no such thing as half-listening. One either listens or they don’t. Music, and those playing it, deserve more than being negligently used to enhance peoples’ primary social experiences – eating dinner, in this case. (Let me be clear that I don’t fault musicians who need to make a living. I am advocating for a better work environment where your front-row “fans” aren’t screaming at their friends over Eggs Benedict and your magnum opus.) 

Music has historically been my main, first-choice social event. But as music saturates nearly every corner of public life, I have found my sense of discernment as a fan increasingly muddied. In its overwhelming prevalence, it feels like music has lost much of its power to command attention, especially in an age when sustained attention is going by way of the dodo.

I’ve seen this firsthand in most people’s inability to watch a movie, sit together at a bar or even drive without a phone break. Looking back, the slow death of listening without distraction was at minimum the canary in a coal mine for where we find ourselves now, unable to focus on even one screen at a time. Just because our machines can multi-task does not mean we can. Maybe our desire to transcend our own human finitude is the real problem. How can art and all of its complexity compete with a generation hellbent on outflying Icarus?

Personally, I don’t find human finitude that limiting. It’s rewarding to fully immerse oneself in music, being able to hear what few others can (like the audible “Holy shit!” from the control room that followed Jeff Mangum’s perfect live take of “Oh, Comely” on Aeroplane Over the Sea). I’ve always loved being able to hear the headphone candy. The breath of the singer; the textures added lower in the mix; the small electronic beeps and buzzes the producer sneaks in, seemingly for his or her own amusement. This is the kind of stuff music fans argue about for hours, lording one’s knowledge of a record over another’s. It’s pure intimacy and nerdy as hell.

After thirty years, music has taught me that listening is more than just registering sound. It’s a process of sitting back and letting songs wash over; moving closer with subsequent listens; eventually deciphering the message and using it to create greater meaning. Listening is not only a superpower, but also a practicable skill. It requires time, our most egalitarian resource. It requires focus without interruption. It requires empathy, the recognition that another’s experience is of equal importance to one’s own. It requires humility, predicated on the understanding that listening to others does not come at an expense to oneself. Listening is definitely not waiting for your turn to talk.

Music is a perfect blend of human, machine and god, a unique vehicle for storytelling. Its physicality and emotionality are imbued with thousands of years of human discourse. To listen to music attentively is to bear witness to the extraordinary accounts of ordinary people. Music’s multifaceted storytelling has been a portal to worlds I might never have known otherwise. Through Air and Stereolab, I got to imagine what France was like before I had ever traveled. Through N.W.A. and Public Enemy, I was given a reality check about racial inequality I never saw firsthand. Through Yoko Ono and Karen Dalton, I got to hear unconventional female voices that taught me there’s no right way to sound like a woman. That’s quite an education. Other people’s stories can also save us from entrenchment, offer a therapeutic break from an unhappy home or the prison of our own paradigms. Music can, at least metaphysically, set us free.

This has been hailed as the Communication Era, but what people call communication is instead amplification. Communication requires exchange. A multitude of faceless handles yelling into the abyss is hardly a worthwhile back-and-forth. In the face of this onslaught, it becomes easy, even justifiable, to tune out other voices to better hear our own. 

But listening to others is vital. If we lose the ability to really hear each other, we lose the ability to believe in each other. What can that mean for our capacity to believe in something that transcends our own human foibles? Belief gives life purpose. Without belief, optimism drowns amid the slow seep of apathy and cynicism. Without stories kept alive around the campfire, we forget where we came from and ultimately who we really are. Without music, we might not remember the importance of body, heart and mind working in tandem within ourselves. We begin to resemble astronauts who have been given a little too much leash. Ultimately still tethered but adrift, ungrounded and lonely.

I believe the recent criticism of those who refuse to listen is an opportunity for real change in how we navigate being useful to each other – especially to victims, POC and, specifically, women of color. Music fans possess a rare adeptness toward active listening, something incredibly valuable in a sociopolitical climate that’s beginning to resemble a Turducken of injustice. Practiced listeners can easily overcome the paralysis of wanting to be more involved but not knowing where to start simply by playing to their strengths.

With time, we can become better students of our fellow citizens. With focus, we can search, listen, read, contemplate and find the stories that resonate. Through empathy, we can believe people. Through humility, we can take further action by being willing to jump on someone else’s agenda, allowing for the possibility that those who have struggled know best the ways they can be helped. With generosity, we can use our platform to amplify voices other than our own.

Even if complex problems can’t be easily solved by such simple measures, the recognition of listening as an act of love is powerful. Allowing someone to be both seen and heard can change a life. Taking your effusive love of music and channeling it into becoming a fan of people is an easy leap, because you’ve already been practicing for years. It’s also mutually beneficial. Moving from the Era of Amplification and Semi-Tasking to an Age of Benevolent Observation is fundamentally necessary, lest we all find ourselves in a busy restaurant performing covers for no one.


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