Thursday, 10 August 2006

Living life to a soundtrack

A recent AP story about the effect of sexually degrading lyrics in the music that teens listen to has been getting some pretty wide attention lately. According to lead author Steven Martino, kids who listen to music that presents women as sexual objects and men as sex-obsessed studs start sexual activity considerably younger than those who don't.

It also generated some lively discussion among three of my own offspring, aged 17 to 22, with most of the argument centering on where to locate the cause and effect. The question, simply put, is do the kids get involved in early sexual activity because of the influence of the music, or do they choose that kind of music because they're already moving toward that kind of mentality?

As a society - and perhaps as a species - we are very fond of trying to reduce complex situations to an either/or scenario and then taking sides. It seems to me in this particular case at least, we are dealing with a kind of feedback loop and at what point the kids are entering it is almost immaterial. Any attempts to combat it on the part of parents should probably aim at all parts of the loop, although preventing them from entering the loop at all is probably the most effective strategy. That is, if you can pull it off. This is an uphill battle no matter how you look at it.

It raises in my mind a broader question though, that I have never seen addressed anywhere. What are the effects of living life to a soundtrack? Many people, and not just kids, are spending hours a day with iPods pumping music directly into their ears and minds. The medical profession has issued numerous warnings about the ill effects on hearing, and moralists of all types have trumpeted their concerns about the lyrics. What I am wondering though, is what it does to our thinking to have such a constant stream of music - any music - washing over us.

As a teenager, I used to listen to the top teen music station on the way to school every morning. After a while, I leaned over and switched it off permanently. I'd noticed that my mood for the day was set by the station's choice of songs for that time slot, and I resented being manipulated in such a way. Terry Jacks was not exactly a great way to get your day off to a positive start. Of course, nowadays you can make your own musical choices, which makes a considerable difference. One of my sons was quite enthusiastically telling me how much his bus trip to visit me had been enhanced by the music on his mp3 player/cell phone. The music added quite a kick to the scenery. In his case, I wouldn't be too concerned about negative influences of the music itself. He has confessed, however, to being addicted to having music as an almost constant in his life. Long hours slaving over the computer working on archictectural design go down a lot more smoothly when accompanied by music.

At least he removes the earbuds when in the company of other people. In contrast, I remember my horror the first time I saw someone using a Sony Walkman. She was standing at the bus stop and the Walkman served as a glass wall, isolating her from the inconvenient presence of other people and ensuring they wouldn't interact with her. My recent encounters on buses and planes have included a woman recently returned from three years teaching English in China and now dealing with her father's Alzheimers, a sociologist/psychoanalyst/professor/Christian, an airline pilot addicted to sudokus and a charming young woman/activist/non-conformist who defies categorization. My life is richer for these encounters, which never would have happened had I barricaded myself with headphones. It seems to me that one thing we do not need in this society is further insulation from each other.

And finally, when do people just stop and think their own thoughts? How can you listen to yourself or to nature or to God through a wall of sound, which far too often is a cacophony anyway? Socrates famously said that an unexamined life isn't worth living. Not only that, but it is one easily manipulated by outside influences. Ironically, in a world swimming in information and stimulation, we seem to spend too much time just absorbing them non-critically which makes us extremely vulnerable to their influence.

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Patrick Martin said...

Sometimes I found the sound of silence just too distracting; I occasionally need music to help keep me focused on my work. But I agree that none of us need a personal soundtrack to go through life. I've posted more of my thoughts over at Stubborn Facts.

Janet said...

This, I think, would be my son's argument, that it helps him concentrate when working on design. I don't have any problem with people doing that, provided the music isn't pumping their heads full of negative subliminal messages. A minor distraction can actually keep your mind from wandering. As a student, I would file my nails in class because it helped me listen better to the lecture. (Hey, whatever works!)

But in our overstimulated world, we seem to be leaving less and less time to ponder and reflect and be open to the world around us. It is a question of degree, not absolutes, but it seems to me that being left alone with nothing but our own thoughts is good now and again. A regular now and again.


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