Wall of Sound

The iPod has changed the way we listen to music. And the way we respond to it.

The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of n+1 magazine. It is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to purchase n+1 in print.

Two years ago, at the nadir of the financial crisis, the urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondered aloud in the New York Times why no mass protests had arisen against what was clearly a criminal coup by the banks. Where were the pitchforks, the tar, the feathers? Where, more importantly, were the crowds? Venkatesh’s answer was the iPod: “In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the ‘mob mentality.’ Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.” Venkatesh’s suggestion was glib, tossed off—yet it was also a rare reminder, from the quasi-left, of how urban life has been changed by recording technologies.

The concern that recorded music promotes solipsism and isolation isn’t new. 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—an experience most fully described by Edith Wharton in the opening scene of The Age of Innocence (1920), just as it was going out of style. With mechanical reproduction came the hitherto unimaginable phenomenon of listening to multi-instrumental music by yourself. How, a contributor to Gramophone magazine asked in 1923, would you react if you stumbled upon somebody in the midst of this private rapture? It would be “as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair. People, we think, should not do things ‘to themselves,’ however much they may enjoy doing them in company.”

But it wasn’t only solitary hyper-listening that recording facilitated. By 1960, recorded popular music had begun, in mysterious ways, to promote new social movements. Former Black Panther Bobby Seale recounts in his memoir how Huey Newton developed an elaborate reading of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” as an allegory of race: “This song Bobby Dylan was singing became a very big part of that whole publishing operation of the Black Panther paper. And in the background, while we were putting this paper out, this record came up and I guess a number of papers were published, and many times we would play that record.” The song wasn’t overtly political but its mood of stately menace seems to have insinuated itself into the politics of the Panthers.

The ‘60s were a decade of both mass protests and mass concerts, and this was more than a coincidence. Barbara Ehrenreich has suggested that the roots of second-wave feminism could be found in the tens of thousands of shrieking girls who filled arenas and ballparks at the Beatles’ American stops, from the Hollywood Bowl to Shea. These girls, unladylike, insistent, were going to scream for what they wanted. Social change drove musical experimentation, and—more remarkably—vice versa.

The music of this era was—it’s worth repeating—an incitement to social change. It was the sound of not going reflexively to war, of mingling across class and racial lines, of thinking it might be all right to sleep around a little, of wanting to work a job that didn’t suck.

Of course the radical hopes of the ‘60s collapsed. The highest-rated YouTube comment on a video of Joan Baez singing “We Shall Overcome” manages to be both smug and glum: “Though we obviously failed, I am so glad that I am of a generation that believed we could make a difference.” By the early ‘70s, popular music had more or less forfeited its capacity to promote social movements. From then on its different varieties would be associated with defining lifestyle niches, consumer habits, and subcultural affiliations. In this way the make-it-new modernist imperative, which seized pop music several decades late, came to seem little different from the program of advertisers launching fresh product lines. Jadedness swept pop music enthusiasts, many of whom, heartbroken by their brief glimpse of collective life, would discount the whole era of the ‘60s as history’s cunning preparation for a descent into hellish consumerism. Welcome to dystopia, a counterfeit heaven where music plays all the time.


The first to ring the alarm about the omnipresence of recorded music were classical music snobs who, as part of their contracted duties as university professors, had to spend time on college campuses. “This is being written in a study in a college of one of the great American universities,” wrote George Steiner in 1974. “The walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music coming from one near and several more distant amplifiers. The walls quiver to the ear or to the touch roughly eighteen hours per day, sometimes twenty-four.” Allan Bloom picked up the beat in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music. …. Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” Steiner: “It matters little whether it is that of pop, folk or rock. What counts is the all-pervasive pulsation, morning to night and into night, made indiscriminate by the cool burn of electronic timbre.” The only historical analogy Bloom could think of was to the Wagner cult of the late 19th century. Yet even world-conquering Wagner appealed to a limited class, who could only hear his works in opera houses. By contrast the music of the late-20th-century world was truly ubiquitous. Steiner: “When a young man walks down a street in Vladivostok or Cincinnati with his transistor blaring, when a car passes with its radio on at full blast, the resulting sound-capsule encloses the individual.” Bloom: “There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos, with special channels devoted to them, on the air, nonstop; there are the Walkmans so that no place—not public transportation, not the library—prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.” Steiner: “What tissues of sensibility are being numbed or exacerbated?”

Yadda, yadda. Yet Bloom and Steiner were right! In fact they had no idea how right they would become. If the spread of home stereo equipment in the 1970s, followed by that of portable devices (the boom box, the Walkman, briefly the Discman), brought music to the masses in a new way, digitization and the iPod have made recorded music even more plentiful and ubiquitous. The fears in Bloom’s time that cassette tapes would bring down the music industry are quaint now, in the face of trillions of bytes of music traded brazenly over the Internet every minute. So, too, does the disc mania of record collectors pale in the face of digital collections measured in weeks of music. A DJ’s crate of 100 LPs amounts to about three days of straight listening; your standard 60-gigabyte iPod, 50 days. Has anyone these days listened to all of their music, even once through?

Nobody knows how much music we listen to, since so often we’re not even listening. The American Time Use Survey, performed every year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, throws up its hands. Does music playing in the background at a cafe count? Music in a film? Music played to drown out other music? Music played while reading, writing, cleaning, exercising, eating, sleeping—all of this has to count in some way. Stumbling into a college dorm now to ask the kids to turn it down, Steiner would find them all earmuffed with headphones as they stare at their computers, each listening to his own private playlist while something else plays on the stereo loud enough for a communal spirit to be maintained. And this is true not only of colleges but the world at large.

If it’s easier than ever to listen to other people’s music, it’s also more tempting than ever to do so all alone. Walkman listening never lost the stigma of the juvenile; the sophistication—and expense—of the iPod have made adulthood safe for solipsism as never before. What does it mean for us, on the listening end, as we pad around the world with our iPods, trying to keep those shitty white earbuds from falling out of our ears? Public music criticism—a wasteland—isn’t much help. It mainly focuses on individual works or single performances, when it isn’t giving us drooling profiles of artists. This has nothing to do with our current mode of listening, which only rarely obsesses on particular works or genres, let alone worships particular figures. In light of the epoch-making iPod, we need a way to find out what all this music listening is doing to us, or what we’re doing with it.


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.

Among the main philosophers of Western music—Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard—Adorno knew the most about music and worked hardest to figure out its relationship to history. For Adorno, it wasn’t just that historical forces circumscribed the production and reception of musical works; it was that historical conflicts appeared in music in mediated form. Thus a seemingly autonomous, nonrepresentational, and non linguistic art transfigured the world and returned it to the listener in a way that oriented him ideologically. The huge melodic conflicts animating Beethoven’s symphonies and the brassy, thumping triumphs with which they concluded announced the era of bourgeois ascendancy after the French Revolution. The “emancipation of dissonance” in the atonal works of Schoenberg suggested a crisis of the bourgeoisie in which the self-evidence of tonality, like that of human progress, began to crack up.

Infamously, when society began to produce new forms of music that accompanied unrest by workers and students, the old Marxist turned a deaf ear. His essays on jazz and pop music are notorious classics of “bad” Adorno. The syncopations of bebop were only a mirage of liberty, and the relentless repetitiveness of rock and roll a virtual embodiment of a reified, historyless, mythological consciousness. The problem here was not exactly snobbism or even unconscious racism. It’s that Adorno seemed only to understand and accept a model of listening in which music solicits and rewards the listener’s whole attention. This is a musical sociology of the concert hall and the study, not the street, store, workplace, block party, or demonstration. From its standpoint, contemporary music of less-than-Schoenbergian melodic complexity can only seem simple, in the sense of dumb.

Theodor Adorno (center)

Bourdieu was a kind of anti-Adorno, his sociology a negation of the traditional aesthetics Adorno had mastered. Bourdieu practiced a deliberate and heroic philistinism. He seemed to know virtually nothing about music; it’s not even clear he liked it. “Music is the ‘pure’ art par excellence,” he wrote in Distinction. “It says nothing and it has nothing to say.” Adorno would have recognized this ostensibly timeless aperçu as a historically specific statement, the product of a whole century (the 19th) of debate over precisely this question: What and how does music communicate? Yet out of this falsehood Bourdieu came to a startling conclusion, the truth of which we’ve all had to concede: “Nothing more clearly affirms one’s ‘class,’ nothing more infallibly classifies, than tastes in music.” In the mid-1960s, he conducted a giant survey of French musical tastes, and what do you know? The haute bourgeoisie loved The Well-Tempered Clavier; the upwardly mobile got high on “jazzy” classics like “Rhapsody in Blue”; while the working class dug what the higher reaches thought of as schmaltzy trash, the “Blue Danube” waltz and Petula Clark. Bourdieu drew the conclusion that judgments of taste reinforce forms of social inequality, as individuals imagine themselves to possess superior or inferior spirit and perceptiveness, when really they just like what their class inheritance has taught them to. Distinction appeared in English in 1984, cresting the high tide of the culture wars about to hit the universities. Adorno had felt that advanced art-music was doing the work of revolution. Are you kidding, Herr Professor? might have been Bourdieu’s response. And thus was Adorno dethroned, all his passionate arguments about history as expressed in musical form recast as moves in the game of taste, while his dismissal of jazz became practically the most famous cultural mistake of the 20th century.


In Adorno and Bourdieu we have two radically different perspectives, inhabiting each other’s blind spots, with a convergence in both authors’ political sympathy with socialism. We can agree with Adorno that music has immanent, formal properties that are connected, somehow, to large-scale historical forces. And we can agree with Bourdieu that musical taste is an instrument in the legitimation of class hierarchies.

Pierre Bourdieu

So Bourdieu is helpful when we ask what the iPod has wrought in the realm of musical classification. The social world of opera-going may be headed the way of polar bears and ice caps, but society hasn’t disappeared. A hierarchical social world has managed to absorb the omnipresence of music pretty effortlessly. You can see this in the violent intragenre squabbling that animates indie rock circles, and in the savage takedowns of avant-garde opera performances in art-music magazines. Meanwhile the proliferation of genre names represents an ever finer process of social differentiation, each genre’s acolytes determining (as Serge Gainsbourg put it) qui est“in,”qui est“out.” The rise of generic distinctions has lately reached a climax of absurdity, such that we can name off the top of our heads: house, witch house, dub, dubstep, hardstep, dancehall, dance-floor, punk, post-punk, noise, “Noise,” new wave, nu wave, No Wave, emo, post-emo, hip-hop, conscious hip-hop, alternative hip- hop, jazz hip-hop, hardcore hip-hop, nerd-core hip-hop, Christian hip-hop, crunk, crunkcore, metal, doom metal, black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, death metal, Christian death metal, and, of course, shoe-gazing, among others. (Meanwhile, 1,000 years of European art music is filed under “classical.”) Some people listen to some of these; others, to only one; and others still, to nearly all. And this accomplishes a lot of handy social sorting, especially among the young, whenever music is talked about or played so that more than one person can hear it.

At the same time, modes of listening seem to be moving toward the (apparent) opposite of micro-differentiation: a total pluralism of taste. This has become the most celebrated feature of the iPod era. “I have seen the future,” Alex Ross, music critic of TheNew Yorker, wrote in 2004, “and it is called the Shuffle—the setting on the iPod that skips randomly from one track to another.” Here the iPod, or the digitization of musical life it represents, promises emancipation from questions of taste. Differences in what people listen to, in a Shuffled world, may have less and less to do with social class and purchasing power. Or, better yet, taste won’t correlate to class distinction: The absence of taste will. As certain foodies score points by having eaten everything—blowfish, yak milk tea, haggis, hot dogs—so the person who knows and likes all music achieves a curious sophistication-through-indiscriminateness.

Adorno would be more at home analyzing the uses to which the omnipresence of music has been put in the service of “the administered life”—the background Muzak and easy listening, the somehow consolingly melancholy shopping pop, that we hear in malls and supermarkets almost without noticing. “I do love a new purchase!” says the Gang of Four outright—while all the other songs merely insinuate it. Around the holidays, Banana Republic will alternate familiar hits like George Michael’s “Last Christmas” with pounding C-grade techno, lulling you into a state of sickly nostalgia before ramping up your heart rate—a perfect way to goose you into an impulse buy. So, too, as Adorno would have been unsurprised to find out, has music become a common way for people to get through the workday. Your local cafe’s barista may literally depend on Bon Iver’s reedy lugubriousness to palliate a dreary job as you depend on coffee.

On the other hand, Adorno’s prejudice against empirical research—as Brecht said, Adorno “never took a trip in order to see”—meant that he never understood how music could be used for different purposes by the very people it was supposed to manage and administer. People not only use music to help them swallow an unpalatable life, but to enhance and enlarge their capacities for action. If a bass line of a standard 12-bar blues, repeating with machinelike regularity, keeps you clicking through the data entry sheet, a sharp post-punk squall can move you to sabotage and revolt, and vice versa. Of course music can also move you in less obviously political ways, filling you with romantic enthusiasm or unshakable sorrow. Then there are all the uses of music that are beneath good and evil, that neither shore up nor undermine the system. In utopia, as under late capitalism, there will still be a lot of cooking and cleaning to do, as well as long drives to take in our electric cars. These slightly boring parts of life are made less so by listening to slightly boring music.

If Adorno, in his emphasis on the immanent unfolding of musical works as cognition, didn’t understand the mixed uses of distracted listening, Bourdieu missed something even more important. His empiricism blinded him to the utopian potential in music. You would never guess, to read his books, that they were published after the ‘60s, an extraordinary period that demonstrated the capacity of musical taste to break down as well as reinforce social boundaries. Shoveled at us now as commodities played ad nauseam on Clear Channel, the “classic rock” of the ‘60s no longer discloses its role in the social movements of that time. And yet—Hendrix, Joplin; Coltrane, Davis, Coleman; the Stones, the Beatles; and Riley, Young, Reich—even if they didn’t sing a single revolutionary word, even if they chastised you for “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,” they were all either directly involved with social movements or deeply implicated in them.


The great 1990s magazine the Baffler spent its first half-decade analyzing how the culture industry managed, with increasing success, to recognize new musical trends and package them and sell them back at a markup to the people who’d pioneered them. The Baffler looked back to the punk scene of the early ‘80s for inspiration; it spoke up for small labels that sold music to local constituencies. If you couldn’t get what you wanted on the radio, you would have to find it left of the dial—and keep looking over your shoulder for the man.

The danger now is different. The man no longer needs a monopoly on musical taste. He just wants a few cents on the dollar of every song you download, he doesn’t care what that song says. Other times he doesn’t even care if you pay that dollar, as long as you listen to your stolen music on his portable MP3 player, store it on his Apple computer, send it to your friends through his Verizon network. To paraphrase Yeltsin’s famous offer to the Chechens, take as much free music as you can stomach. We’ll see where it gets you.

If recording and mechanical reproduction opened up the world of musical pluralism—of listening to other people’s music until you and they became other people yourselves—digital reproduction expanded that pluralism to the point where it reversed itself. You have all the world’s music on your iPod, in your earphones. Now it’s “other people’s music”—which should be very exciting to encounter—as played in cafes and stores that is the problem. In any public setting, it acquires a coercive aspect. The iPod is the thing you have to buy in order not to be defenseless against the increasingly sucky music played to make you buy things.

One radical option remains: abnegation—some “Great Refusal” to obey the obscure social injunction that condemns us to a lifetime of listening. Silence: The word suggests the torture of enforced isolation, or a particularly monkish kind of social death. But it was the tremendously congenial avant-garde gadabout John Cage who showed, just as the avalanche of recorded music was starting to bury us, how there was “no such thing as silence,” that listening to an absence of listener-directed sounds represented a profounder and far more heroic submission than the regular attitude adopted in concert halls—a willingness to “let sounds be,” as he put it. Such were Cage’s restrictions that he needed to herd everyone into their seats in order to make his point—an authoritarian gesture toward an anarchic result. But now in conditions of relative freedom we can listen to 4’33” on record, or on our iPods, and the change in attention it demands is exactly the opposite of our endless contemporary communing with music, our neurotic search for the right sound, the exact note that never comes. What if we tried to listen to nothing? Silence is the feature of our buzzing sound-world we enjoy least, whose very existence we threaten to pave over track by track. Silence is the most endangered musical experience in our time. Turning it up, we might figure out what all our music listening is meant to drown out, the thing we can’t bear to hear.

This excerpt from n+1 magazine is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to purchase n+1 in print.