The Perfect Listener (Pt. 1)
oulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.
If you look closely enough through the accompanying booklet (thick enough to be a novella, dense enough to be penned by TS Eliot), you will find that as well as lyrics, production details, and credits, Scott Walker also gives you instructions on how to listen to The Drift; specifically that it should be “played at high volume.” He’s not the only artist who has told his audience how to approach his work. On the back of 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Clan commanded us to “Play Loud,” a trick borrowed from none other than The Rolling Stones. David Bowie went one further on the sleeve of Ziggy Stardust, telling us that it was “To be played at MAXIMUM VOLUME.”
Take a moment to pick out a few records and investigate their liners for instructions. Spiritualized’s Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space has a whole mocked-up instruction leaflet, designed to make the album seem like prescription-only medicine, detailing side-effects and dosage (“Play once, twice daily”). Jason Pierce’s old mucker from Spacemen 3, Sonic Boom, asked people to “Play twice before listening” to his solo albums. In the sleeve of Welcome to Sky Valley, 90s stoner-rockers Kyuss merely requested that we “listen without distraction.” On a slightly metaphysical front, George Michael went so far as to title an entire record as a request to his audience, asking us to Listen Without Prejudice.
There are plenty of others. Jarvis Cocker doesn’t want you to read his lyrics for Pulp songs at the same time as you listened to the records. Nirvana’s In Utero detailed suggested bass and treble positions for your stereo in the sleeve in order to get the most effective results out of the record. The Flaming Lips are particularly picky buggers, with Transmissions from the Satellite Heart asking for volume, while Zaireeka demands four CD players and a little help from your friends. The The’s fabulous Mind Bomb suggests listening “very loud, very alone, very late with the lights very low.” Having listened to it in this setting, as well as a few others, I concur with Matt Johnson’s advice.
The temerity! The outright arrogance! How dare these musicians tell us, the listeners who pay for their drugs and whores with ticket stubs and CD purchases and illegal downloads, how to listen! As if we don’t know!
Nobody likes being told that they don’t do something properly, especially if they believe that the thing in question is a natural impulse—that there is no “proper” way of doing it. There isn’t a “right way” to listen any more than there is a “right way” to breathe or sit. Except that there is. Sit in the wrong way and develop chronic lumbar problems in your back. Breathe in the wrong way as an actor or singer and lose your voice. One of the first things you learn in martial arts is effective breathing patterns; respiration, balance, and health influence posture, awareness, and agility by simply making the movement of blood and oxygen around your body more effective. You can learn techniques to improve memory and concentration, ways to recall long strings of numbers or letters by drawing associations, linking synapses by linking ideas and images. It’s the same with listening—listen in the wrong way and get bored, get a headache, or fail to hear anything at all. You can learn to listen better—not just to play “spot the influence” so you can seem cool, but to pay more attention, to pick out greater levels of detail, to recognize space and timbre. How well do you listen? What is the “right” kind of listener?
Bose man gets my train. Bose man is in his late 40s, at a guess. Bose man had a pair of Song W.Ear headphones when I started getting the train, which I also had. Later, Bose man got some Sennheiser PX100s, which I also had by that stage too. Evidently these weren’t suitable for his desires, so he got the PX250s, which are actively noise-canceling. These also failed to satisfy, and he moved to a larger pair of closed-back headphones, of a make I cannot remember. Bose man now has a big, ear-enclosing pair of noise-canceling headphones, manufactured by Bose. He’s had these for a several months now, so he must be quite pleased with them.
Bose man sits motionless, in his shirt & tie, with his briefcase on his lap and his hands clasping it as if frightened. He never seems to move, not his hands, his head or even his eyes. I don’t know what music he’s listening to or even if he’s actually listening to music at all—those noise-cancellers could just be used to cut out the sound of life, for all I know.
Then there are Japanese teenagers hooked on MP3s like junkies on crack, listening to 30-second edits of J-Pop in a never-ending loop of hooks and choruses, cutting all the fat off the meat of a song and then throwing the meat away and eating the fat. To me, this is a horrible idea, like Clockwork Orange, 1984, and Brave New World all rolled into one insane, repetitive orgy of consumption. What a horrible state to be in, to never appreciate anything and yet to constantly crave new things to consume. Do we listen to listen or to have listened? Stories only become stories when they are told; does culture only have worth when you comment upon it, that is, after the effect?
Who likes music more, the audiophile intently listening to the same Beatles LP through a tube amp every night or the iPod kid running five thousand MTV2-approved MP3s through his earbuds all day? The Rockist or the Poptimist? Loads of attention to no records or no attention to loads of records? How much attention is Bose man paying? The over-stimulated J-Pop kid? How much does he actually like music? As much as me? As much as you? It’s an affront to suggest to someone that they don’t actually like music. It’s like admitting to not liking animals or children. It makes you slightly less humane. But do you like music because you love it, or because you picked it as a lifestyle choice?