Earbuds and mosh pits
I was fortunate enough to spend last year on sabbatical. Although family commitments prevented me from taking my leave anywhere exotic, I enjoyed the gift of unstructured, uninterrupted days to work in my study at home, and I visited the campus only occasionally, usually under the cover of night, to retrieve my mail. Apart from periodic e-mail correspondence with my doctoral students, I went an entire year with no student contact.
Coming back to the campus last fall wasn’t as difficult an adjustment as I’d feared; much as I appreciated the time to focus on “my own work” (interesting phrase, since all my best ideas seem to originate in the classroom), I felt ready to get back to teaching. I was not ready, though, for the near-total colonization of our campus by iPods that seemed to have taken place in my absence. Walking into the student center, walking to class, walking to the library, I saw those iconic white earbuds — not to mention bulkier, better-sounding, after-market headphones — everywhere. While I wasn’t looking, it seems, my students have become what Andrew Sullivan has cleverly dubbed “the iPod people.” In a 2005 piece in the London Sunday Times, Sullivan complained:
“Music was once the preserve of the living room or the concert hall. It was sometimes solitary but it was primarily a shared experience, something that brought people together, gave them the comfort of knowing that others too understood the pleasure of a Brahms symphony or that Beatles album. But music is as atomised now as living is. And it’s secret. That bloke next to you on the bus could be listening to heavy metal or a Gregorian chant. You’ll never know. And so, bit by bit, you’ll never really know him. And by his white wires, he is indicating he doesn’t really want to know you.”
Perhaps things are different in London than in New York or L.A. or Chicago, but I’m not aware of a time when mass-transit commuters ever wanted to know one another: I thought the idea was to stay as remote from one’s fellow travelers as possible. That notwithstanding, Sullivan, a precocious curmudgeon, echoes the fears of an earlier generation, which came of age when the only portable music was the transistor radio (and that, as many 50s movies attest, was plenty scary enough). In some ways, Sullivan’s is adults’ perennial fear of “kids’ music”: The Kingsmen’s 1963 recording of “Louie Louie” was the subject of an FBI investigation not because of what it said, but because the parents didn’t know what it said.
Those headphones on our students bother teachers because they seem to symbolize a voluntary deafness and a concomitant isolation. Allan Bloom put it most memorably, if artlessly, when he complained in The Closing of the American Mind that “as long as they [our students] have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.” If anything, the musical isolation of our students (and, truth be told, some of their teachers) has become even more pronounced since Bloom pronounced his dire warning. If music before the age of mechanical reproduction was of necessity a communal activity, today music consumption tends to be the most private of acts. And college teachers who don’t get off the campus much might easily assume that today’s students are musical solipsists.
But this zombie-movie scenario, featuring students who fill their heads with anarchic song while commuting from one campus location to another, is only half the story. Indeed, one of the most common activities for our students over the summer, besides working a minimum-wage job, is attending one of the summer’s many, many rock festivals: the one place where musical isolationists come together for a day or two or three. My sense is that communal gatherings of young music fans are more important now than they’ve been at any time since I started teaching. I’d even be willing to wager that there’s a direct correlation between iPod sales and summer-music-festival ticket sales.
Ever since the recent wave of festivals was kick-started in 1991, with the first Lollapalooza Festival, brainchild of Jane’s Addiction ex-frontman Perry Farrell, the summer months have been populated with more than a dozen summer fests, among them Austin City Limits, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, the Essence Music Festival, the Vans Warped Tour, Ozzfest, Musicfest, the Street Scene Music Festival, the Pitchfork Music Festival, Summerfest, Thrilladelphia, X-Fest. “The Lollapalooza Generation” is now sometimes used as a (clumsy) synonym for Generation Y.
Some trace the origins of those summer rock blockbusters to the 1990 Gathering of the Tribes festival (not to be confused with the Gathering of the Tribes Pagan and Wiccan Festival), organized by the late California superpromoter Bill Graham. The Tribe gathered for only two dates; but all of the summer-festival ingredients were there, including a wide and diverse roster of musical acts (Iggy Pop, Soundgarden, Queen Latifah, the Cramps, the Indigo Girls, Lenny Kravitz, Joan Baez, Public Enemy) and an alternative/progressive marketplace of art and ideas, politics, health care, and spirituality. Farrell was in the audience for the Los Angeles edition of the festival, and the phenomenon was born.
Although Farrell reportedly got the name for his festival from a Three Stooges movie, “Lollapalooza” has become almost a household word in contemporary American culture. For instance, in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons called “Homerpalooza,” Homer takes Bart and Lisa to an alternative-music festival called Hullabalooza, which features Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth. In a fourth-season episode of South Park called “Timmy 2000,” Timmy joins the band Lords of the Underworld and ends up a main act in the “Lalapalalapaza” festival, replacing the scheduled headliner Phil Collins. Indeed, the suffix “-palooza” now seems to float free in the discourse of popular culture; the May issue of Spin magazine, announcing this summer’s festivals, is emblazoned with the headline “Festivalpalooza!”
Of course all of those festivals, whether explicitly or implicitly, hark back to Woodstock, but the more-recent summer festivals serve a different function for this generation of rock fans than did their near-mythical progenitor. A familiar reaction to the current festivals is to complain that they are commercialized and commodified corporate productions, unlike the original Woodstock. But the answer’s not that simple, nor was Woodstock that pure. The official anthem of Woodstock, after all, was written by Joni Mitchell while she watched the whole thing on TV in a Manhattan hotel room. Even Woodstock wasn’t much like Woodstock.
Vexed by all those contradictions — and nudged into action by the announcement that the members of one of my favorite groups, the seminal Northwest riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney, would be going their separate ways at the end of last summer — I arranged to go to the 2006 Lollapalooza in Chicago last August, to see what I could find out.
I am not a fan of listening to music in that kind of setting. One reason is that size does matter: With a total paid attendance of more than 166,000 people, the 2006 Lollapalooza, while boasting an extraordinary lineup of acts, was not exactly an intimate set of shows. Eight stages were spread out over 69 acres of Grant Park; nearly a mile separated the two biggest venues, the AT&T stage, at the southeast corner of the park, and the Bud Light stage, at the northwest. Thus it was mathematically possible to see, for instance, the Dresden Dolls at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and then Common at 6:30 p.m. — but you’d have to leave before the end of the first set, run a four-minute mile, arrive late for the second, and stand, oh, a quarter of a mile from the stage, watching the performance on the Jumbotron. For an old guy like me, that’s not entertainment.
Second, I’m old enough to enjoy sitting, rather than standing, through a concert, and when it’s a full day (11 a.m. until 10 p.m.) of concerts, or three full days, with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees, that much more so. Then, too, the very presence of so many bands and performers guarantees that no one gets to play for long. The acts at the original Woodstock played real sets — Jimi Hendrix played for nearly three hours — but last summer’s Lollapalooza boasted that the $150 base price for a three-day pass worked out to “about $1 per band.” The downside of that arrangement is that each act gets a very short moment in the spotlight. While the headline acts closing each night of the festival (Ween on the AT&T Stage, Death Cab for Cutie on the Bud Light stage on Friday; Kanye West and Manu Chao on Saturday; and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all by their lonesome on Sunday) got respectable one-and-a-half-hour sets, everyone else got just an hour — and a couple of poor suckers got only 45 minutes.
So while my trip to Lollapalooza was to some extent a sentimental journey to see my beloved Sleater-Kinney before they went splitsville, they had only one hour for their set, and they performed at the same time as five bands on other stages. What’s worse, their set was scheduled to begin when My Morning Jacket’s set concluded across the park; the acoustics were such that S-K’s show couldn’t start, and be heard, until MMJ was done. Unfortunately, MMJ thought themselves pretty awesome: Their final number deteriorated into a rock version of Mozart’s “Ein Musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke),” with one false ending following another, seemingly refusing to die. Those of us waiting for S-K to play would have been happy to kill it, but we could only stand with our backs to the S-K stage, watching MMJ across the park on the big screen, scowling at their cock-rock antics. Anyone turning around to look at the S-K stage, however, would have seen the three women of Sleater-Kinney in the wings, dissolving into quiet laughter.
The biggest strike against summer music festivals is that festival music sounds awful. The logistics of the Lollapalooza staging requires one-hour breaks between acts performing on the same stage; after one act has cleared out, the next has perhaps 40 minutes to set up, so there’s no time for a decent sound check. And projecting out into an open space with no reflecting surfaces, as we learned from Monterey Pop and other 1960s festivals, is an acoustic nightmare. Festivals, then, have bad sound even by the pretty low standards of rock concerts. Kanye West threw a somewhat predictable fit about sound problems during his set, but it felt self-indulgent. Of course the sound was bad. If we wanted perfect sound, we’d listen to Late Registration — that’s right, on our iPods.
Why, then, do our students go to these summer music festivals? Even good music there, performed brilliantly, almost always sounds terrible; the conditions are primitive and uncomfortable; the sets are short, the song selections usually predictable. And the beer is ridiculously expensive.
The simplest way for college professors to understand it, I think, is to turn the question back on ourselves and to think for a minute about our own tribal ritual: the academic conference. Why do we attend conferences? They’re inconvenient, entailing a good deal of expense; the “sets” are short (three 20-minute papers); the quality is terrible — we’d be much better served, in most cases, by reading the journal article when it appears rather than trying to follow its redaction as it’s delivered to an overcrowded room, while the author protests that “if I had enough time, I’d. … ”
We go to conferences — admit it — for the community. I can read literary or popular-music scholarship alone in my office or my study at home, or in the university library, and I regularly do. But I like learning communally with friends and colleagues, taking in the challenge of an original piece of work, hashing out the implications, or the critical blind spots, of a paper over drinks. Indeed, for many of us, the primary place we enjoy collegial exchange isn’t in our home departments but at our disciplinary conferences. Only there do our “headphones” really come off, as we attempt tentatively to dance together to the same tune.
It is true that our students today largely consume music in isolation. Even in my music-history class, where I habitually arrive 10 minutes early to set up my iPod dock and fill the classroom with “mood music,” my students come in and sit down with their own headphones on. But for those who know how to read the signs, the signs are everywhere of our students’ desire to experience music communally. When I teach a music course, I can count on being inundated with CD’s of music my students want me to hear; just as predictably, I find myself lending out my own library of CD’s and music DVD’s. My music class is the one class it seems impossible for me to leave on timeif I’ve somehow managed to keep the lid on discussion during the scheduled class period, conversations overflow into the hallways as I try to sneak away for lunch.
More significant, perhaps, is the fact that much of the communal activity of rock-music consumption has been driven underground. Given the copyright maximalism of legislation like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act and the hyperactive enforcement regime of the Recording Industry Association of America — whose prosecutorial zeal against college students since January 2003 has been documented in the pages of The Chronicle — our students are understandably nervous about advertising their interest in sharing music. The slipperiness of music ownership was dramatized by a delicious, small irony of the Lollapalooza I attended: The most popular song of the festival was last summer’s ubiquitous hit “Crazy,” by Gnarls Barkley. It was performed by Jack White’s band the Raconteurs and by Kanye West, in addition to Gnarls Barkley themselves, the duet of veteran hip-hop artist Cee-Lo and DJ Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse became famous precisely for “stealing” music — for a brilliant, unauthorized mash-up of The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Jay-Z’s The Black Album, which Danger Mouse called, logically enough, The Grey Album, and which was available, following an injunction brought by the Beatles’ Apple Corps, only on the black (or perhaps “grey”) market. Now that he’s moving CD’s for Downtown Records, a new “indie” label distributed in a collaborative venture of Warner Brothers and Atlantic, however, Danger Mouse’s sins seem to have been forgiven.
Rock T-shirts, since the 60s a college sartorial staple, have taken on added significance in today’s nervous climate surrounding music exchange. As one of my students explained to me, “If someone’s wearing a shirt for a band you haven’t heard of, you might ask them about it, and they’ll get you something to listen to. Or if it is a band you have heard of and like, maybe they’ve got something I don’t know about, and they’ll share, or I’ve got something they don’t know about, and I’ll share.” The “mix tape” culture celebrated in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is alive and well, even if the format is now CD or MP3. “I’ll burn it for you,” which would have suggested something very different when I was in college, is the pass phrase of this new communitarian, or at least communal, impulse. And if this all sounds like a subculture — well, a subculture is just a community with a bad reputation. Like those gangs of kids with transistor radios in the 50s films.
To think of our students as simply (i)Pod people, like the mindless, alien drones in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as Allan Bloom and Andrew Sullivan do, is to look complacently at just half the story. A strong desire for community, albeit an ephemeral, shifting community, is the other half. We professors, focused on our teaching and the business of the university during the academic year, and forced into a sometimes uneasy collegiality as a result, retreat into self-imposed exile during the summer, picking up the usually solitary work of scholarship. Our students, on the other hand, whose sense of isolation and alienation during the academic term is exacerbated by the fragmentary nature of the curriculum through which we run them, and by the necessity of holding down outside jobs to provide the money no longer available from financial aid, are operating on exactly the opposite calendar. They use the summer months in part to reconnect with something larger.
To see the iPod as an agent of isolation rather than a symptom of, or a clever adaptation to, that isolation is to confuse cause and effect. When I was in college, I heard almost all of my music on stereos in friends’ dorm rooms and apartments. Few of my students today have that luxury; they simply don’t have the time. I saw a doctoral student of mine recently at a Wilco show, down in the mosh pit, dancing. It changed my view of him entirely. It made me realize that we transform our students from people into scholars — a process of real narrowing — only at significant personal cost to them. So maybe we professors can change our perspective somewhat and see in those white iPod earbuds a symbol not of willful retreat, but of community deferred. Autor: Kevin J.h Dettmar