Every Superhero Needs His Own Theme Music

Lady-Gaga-Telephone-4 Bradley Manning, who is accused of providing data to Wikileaks, allegedly did so while listening to Gaga:

(2:14:21 pm) Manning: listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltratrating [sic] possibly the largest data spillage in american history

Audio is a most seductive medium. In 2004, when the IPOD was but a finicky, clicky-hard drived baby, New York Times reporter Warren St. John went to New York’s streets to chart what effect the device had on the urban landscape and the human relationships within. Were New Yorkers becoming as atomized, as isolated, as Californians were in their cars? Baristas and bagel bar owners were quoted lamenting that Ipod listeners were holding up the line, not hearing the cashier shout “Next!” New Yorkers love their imagined tribes, and one likened Ipod owners to one, identifiable only by those little white wires. Another tribal said the machine “makes him feel as though he is in his own music video.”

This last idea is the only one in the article that still seems relevant: somehow our bagel lines move smoothly again even if we’re all plugged in, but the idea of creating one’s own little cinemascape, audience of one, is stickier. The listener St. John quoted isn’t at all concerned by the idea of being in his own music video. It is rather an empowering, joyous thing, one any urban dweller who moves through the city freely and possesses such a device might relate to. Indeed, the idea that the Ipod might have a pernicious, or at least complicated side, struck Apple as “wacky” in St. John’s article ''it's a little wacky to look at it that way, when the iPod has brought so much happiness into people's lives.''

The social aspects of music enjoyment – at a concert or a club, or even through Ipods and mobile phones (Wayne Marshall's teenagers “clustered around a tinny piece of plastic broadcasting a trebly slice of the latest pop hit”), are recognized as important, or demonized, parts of the urban tapestry. There’s a lot being said about what this all means for the public space. Here though, I want to focus on the private space: that more intimate, profoundly antisocial relationship, between oneself, one’s music, and one’s earbuds. When you’re not sharing, when its just for you. What does it mean to be in one’s own music video?

In a 2009 paper, Miriam Simun interviewed Londoners about the listening habits of their morning commute. Londoners describe how they use MP3 players shut the world out, to create distance, to speed up the time of their daily errands, or to entertain and prevent boredom, to “keep yourself” as one of Simun’s interviewees puts it “more separate from the madness around you.” People also want to do this at the office, at the gym: what does it mean if you need to be “blocked from the madness” everywhere you go?

Blocking the madness, or just beating the boredom, means making one’s experience much like a media artifact: it means creating a sense of expectation, or drama, emotion or performance for only oneself. Writing about the latter experience, back in those early days when the bagel line was potentially stalled forever, Michael Bull, a University of Sussex professor dubbed “Dr Ipod” by the media, likened the IPOD experience to that of creating a cinematic world:

“It's also very cinematic. The music allows you to construct narratives about what's going on. Or you use it to control thoughts. A lot of people don't like to be alone with their thoughts. The best way to avoid that is to listen to music.”

You have to sit down to watch a film, devote your attention to it in a way that is conscious or half conscious. You have to choose to linger over a photograph or a painting. Music or spoken word is simultaneously less encompassing of one’s attention and thus more encompassing of one’s life, and has become, in little over a century since its invention, ever more intimate, moving from our living rooms to our cars to earbuds themselves.

Bull argued that this mini cinematic experience we create for ourselves (mini in terms of audience, at least, though maximal in terms of scope) was more than just aesthetic, that the IPOD was making urban life better, because it “allowed people to find pleasure in the place they’re existing.” These were the take-homes the press focused on, and Bull was made to seem rather optimistic about the whole thing: the MP3 player as a provider of choice: “It's a much more active process even though it's dependent on the machinery.” By choosing music (or podcasts on anything from chess to Italian language to current affairs) to play in your ears, you change the message from inputs pointed at you to inputs you have chosen.

Bull’s academic work belies a more measured understanding than the breathy coverage of his ideas in the mid 2000s suggests: our intimate relationship with audio makes up for a lack of some kind, and is, like many intimate relationships, one of attraction and repulsion. Writing about how people create bespoke audio environments in their cars, Bull noted “auditory media embody a form of compensatory metaphysics whereby subjects seek solutions to their everyday life.” (http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/21/4-5/243.abstract ).

(2:12:23 pm) bradass87: so… it was a massive data spillage… facilitated by numerous factors… both physically, technically, and culturally

There are obvious practical implications to Manning’s statement in the world of data security, and access. But his culpability or motivations aside, its interesting to think how normal listening to music at your desk has become. Whereas once, deskwork must have been unbearably boring and perhaps stunningly efficient, now its normal to rock out to dance music at your desk, while you draft threatening letters, edit affidavits, perfect power points, or allegedly download terabytes of classified information.

Much of merit has been written in media studies about the complicated seductions of photographs and the moving image, of films and music videos. But audio itself is just as subtle in its seduction, and as it evolves, ever more personally enveloping. It represents a sort of personal branding of oneself to oneself: nobody knows what’s going on behind your ear buds – whether its Gaga or Genesis, NPR or Rush Limbaugh, you are performing yourself to yourself for yourself only. That way the mask perhaps need never come off, one never need “be alone” with one’s thoughts.

There is some heady hubris that comes from setting your life to music: banal moments acquire emotional heft, and one’s dash to get a sandwich at lunch acquires some extra swagger. It’s a feeling most of us, in the past, could’ve only enjoyed in a clearly public space – the club – or a clearly private one – the car, your living room. Taking that purely private pleasure in public, but in secret, is a relatively new thing. As Kanye West, in his song Power observes:

I guess every superhero need his own theme music

No man should have all that power

The clocks tickin, I just count the hours

Stop trippin, I’m trippin off the power.