Talking musical control, discipline, and context with musicologist Lily E. Hirsch
I’m on the autism spectrum and react really, really strongly to music - I cannot listen to “background” music without reacting because it’s not in the background for me but in the foreground!
If I am in a restaurant or mall or anywhere music is playing, when I know the words I am unable to stop myself from singing and dancing. It’s extremely challenging for me to hold a conversation unless it’s about something related to the music or musician. (So, like, if a Mariah Carey song comes on, I can either only sing the song or start rambling to you about how in 2001 she was mocked for having a breakdown despite the fact that her ex-husband was actively sabotaging her career and stealing her material to give to Jennifer Lopez. Justice for her and Britney and all women who are screwed over by the patriarchal music industry!)
As a result, I am very upset by the increasing use of music everywhere in public spaces because it completely derails my brain to focus only on the music. I work in town/urban planning and cannot even escape it in my municipality - I was the only person on our downtown design team who didn’t want music on Main Street. Everyone else was like “if we play a top 40 mix (that excludes rap because racism) then everyone will stay and shop more!” And I was like “no…it’s too invasive and will stop people from being able to just relax and think while they shop” and no one else understood my point of view AT ALL! Meanwhile I’m over here trying to explain that I associate certain songs with certain chain stores and shopping malls due to their playlists and how I don’t want to do that with Main Street and I just get more weird looks. (And yes, that includes classical music. I sing along to classical music using the word “do”.)
So, all that to say…great interview! The topic of music and space really fascinates me as a music lover and someone in the urban planning field.
I live next to an extremely ritzy coastal area in LA. All the 7-11 stores started blasting classical music as the housing crisis got worse here. I love classical music and get mad about this for a lot of reasons, but the one that always sticks out to me is this idea that classical music is annoying and something to be used as punishment. This is a hugely interesting topic and I’m so glad this writer did this exploration.
Also on country music--I am a native Texan who worked in a country bar in college so I love the stuff, but get why people wouldn’t like it. I think Brandi C. has done a lot to make the genre more inclusive over the past several years.
I do not enjoy hearing music everywhere I go, even though as an aging Boomer, it's frequently the "music of my life". "For What It's Worth" and "I Can't Get no Satisfaction" were not written to be played on the overhead speakers for Target and CVS shoppers. I dislike the commodification and commercialization of music. When the shopping malls start playing Christmas music on November 1, I just want to leave. I prefer actively listening to music that I choose to hear the music, vocals or lyrics as the activity for its own sake.
I know a guy, still held at Guantanamo Bay, who was subjected to loud music at a CIA facility. He doesn't speak English, and didn't recognize it: he just called it the Devil's music. I imagine a particular genre, but I guess it really could have been anything.
I'll say, though, that the musical thing that has struck me when I'm at Guantanamo (I've been there a number of times from 2005 to 2019) is that whenever I'm at the grocery store, or anywhere music is playing, it's very different from public places in the US. Vanishingly few of the people shopping at the GTMO base are even 40, and seeing someone over 60 there is like seeing someone in their 90s here. Consequently, the usual Boomer stranglehold over the music of public spaces is just absent. (My experience in the US is that public music is either Boomer-era or Boomer-approved.)
So you end up with a place where the Cold War has never ended but where musical culture has continued to evolve in the 21st century.
First of all, I had hoped the boom box was a thing of the past but now people walk around with music blaring from their phones or on biking/walking trails with music coming from a bluetooth instrument. I absolutely, as a former dj, loathe having to hear music I cannot control on some level. I am one of those people who prefer ambient sound over music in a restaurant.
I love music and generally think of it as offering possible pleasure.
This interview got me to thinking about the fact that music is at base SOUND and that as sound it can be a tool for anything just as any stimuli for our other senses can also be used for pleasure or pain. Perhaps the word "music" is connotative of something that is always pleasurable like say cuddling can be connotative of something pleasurable in the touch arena whereas a different kind of touch is not. If we use the base sense, then it changes how we can think about its uses? Or images, tastes, smells? I think we forget that our senses are how we experience the world and all are open to abuse from the outside. I imagine someone can find evidence of scent being used as a weapon...
But I may be getting too caught in language here. It was a thought provoking piece.
Thank you Ms. Wang for the offering and to you Ms. Petersen for continuing to share your platform with interesting people.
I've experienced this but didn't have the words for it. I live near a popular bike trail. It's very common now for groups of cyclists to ride with Bluetooth speakers blaring music. It's the o be Upper Midwest, so usually it's 70s and 80s rock or country music. It's weird to be out on the trail, listening to birds and crickets, and then ACDC whooshes past.
This is so interesting to me, as a person who genetally does not like music. (Not a strictly true statement, but as near to the truth as I can get in a short statement to a stranger.) When I was a kid I _loathed_ all music, some sound qualities or volumes would actually make me feel physically ill; this has mellowed some as I've gotten older, and there is some stuff I actually enjoy, but I'm very particular and the context needs to be right (like, I enjoy going to some operas, but I really hate all background music, even if I would like the specific music in other contexts). I still hate anything too loud, or noisy, or electronic/synthy, or bass heavy in the way you can feel in your chest. I still skip podcast intro/outro music. It would literally never occur to me to play music while doing something (chores, dinner, whatever). People who always have music muddling up the background of their lives totally baffle me. (Don't even get me started on people who put music on during sex.) Ironically, most of the people I'm closest to, currently and historically, are either professional musicians or extremely dedicated amateurs, ha.
I live in Las Vegas, where music is piped in *everywhere*, including parking lots. I found myself appreciating the silence more in my car and my home. I don't listen to music that often anymore, because I'm subjected to it everywhere I go.
I haven’t read the main interview yet because it was a little too early for me to read something with torture in the title (but I will!!!) but I wanted to comment on the drag story hour piece included in the links. Getting really emotional because a local drag queen event was just shut down at one of the libraries nearby after receiving threats. And I’m just so angry and sad about it, and it’s really hard to see that a community was able to garner support and show that they weren’t afraid but also what are you supposed to do when far right terrorists are sending threats and gun violence is so pervasive in this country?
This is so timely. My husband and I went to Chase bank last week and they were playing this Top 40 pop playlist from ~3 years ago which we both noticed did not fit the atmosphere at all. One particularly annoying song started playing and the banker apologized because it was blasting from a speaker right above her desk and she mentioned how they had this one playlist on loop everyday and there were a lot of songs she didn't like. My husband is a musician and the choice of music for certain times/places is a PASSION for him so he really dug into this.
He asked if it was possible for them to turn down the volume and she said the playlist and volume were ALL CONTROLLED by Chase HQ. Apparently the same playlist has been on loop NONSTOP (yes, even outside of business hours, the music is still playing continuously inside) for as long as she had worked there. They have no way to change it, no way to adjust the volume or even turn it off. The speakers are built-ins so there aren't visible wires to unplug.
We left feeling so bad and angry for the workers! We realized these conditions are probably true of every big retail store but I think we've just gotten accustomed to hearing those pop playlists in grocery stores and Walgreens. It's still annoying but expected. In a bank, those songs just felt so out of place and jarring so we noticed it more. We got the follow-up feedback email from Chase and sent all the nice things about the workers and just blasted the brutal music situation (without mentioning that any particular employee complained about it).
"I long said in the past—I don’t say it anymore—that I don’t like country music. Now I know there are amazing women in country music. I love Brandi Carlile. I’m a huge fan of some of these women. But in the past, I associated country music with white toxic masculinity, lyrics about trucks, and blind patriotism. Because of that association, I said, “I don’t like country music.” But music is rarely one thing, and genres are ever expanding and changing, and I have to step back and think about why I say the things I do or why I’m reacting to a certain piece of music in the way I am."
This really resonated with me, and there's always so much that is context-dependent. I re-listen to music that I haven't encountered in a while, and it transports me back to a certain time and place and especially mental space. And I wonder if I had encountered a certain piece at a different time, if I would have even liked it. For me, music taste is such a fickle thing.
Oh, I think this whole interview is so interesting and so insightful!
"It’s related to people’s notions of what music should be, and whenever you use those “shoulds,” you’re not looking at what music really is, and you’re avoiding the real issue that should be up for discussion." - love this. Music is just organized sound -- just one tool in the human-expression toolbox.
What a great interview. I have an MA in ethnomusicology, so should be intrigued by music in public spaces. Instead, at least this month, I am nerve-janglyling destroyed. Function of being suddenly, unexpectedly in a city (family emergency) in a hotter climate than my usual, and always needing to find respite in the form of a bathroom and some brief AC. Every single place — even the pharmacy! —- is blasting Par-Tay! music and I’m starting to understand random acts of violence. Granted, this is a tourist zone, or in close proximity, but this also happened to me once during an unexpected weeks-long sojourn in Orange County. Was that little speaker in the bushes outside the facial place where I went to calm down thrumping inanities in order to deter me from loitering? It worked! But there was no where to run.
On the comment of "music that everyone likes," I thought of Jad Abumrad's podcast miniseries, "Dolly Parton's America," where he makes a claim that Dolly Parton is at the cross-section of many people's musical tastes: at a Parton concert, you can see left-leaning radical lesbians enjoying the same music as a man in MAGA hat, and everyone in between.
Parton is not only an excellent songwriter but also a savvy businesswoman; no one knows her personal politics, and so her fans are able to superimpose their own beliefs so that they match what she believes -- because she doesn't confirm or dispel their conceptions about her. Additionally, she inhabits this space of a beautiful-if-somewhat-less-intelligent-and-therefore-unthreatening woman, and she says herself that she can fallback on a boob joke to smooth tensions. I wish our current cultural context made it so that she didn't have to use fallbacks like that -- but wow, she has brilliantly navigated a career and business amid the sexism of the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. (Also, moves like funding vaccine research and her reading program only help her public image.)
This was an amazing interview, especially to read driving back from a concert. Thank you so much for writing!
Tell me she’s working on a PDQ Bach book too!