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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When Pop Music Makes Us Feel Less, Not More

Posted By on Tue, Apr 2, 2013 at 3:00 AM


Long before it was even possible, people dreamed of listening to records. My favorite figure in this side history of the imagination is Cyrano de Bergerac, who, in 1657, wrote a story where he described a spring-loaded device that faithfully recorded sound. Exactly 200 years later, the first patent for such an invention was issued, to a Parisian named Leon Scott. Though in order for it to work, the "phonoautograph," as Scott called his device, required no raw material that would have been unavailable in de Bergerac's time.

This raises the question: What took us so long? Why did de Bergerac's "talking book" stall in the annals of his daydreams before we let it loose in our world? Why does the history of recorded music go back only 150 years, instead of 350? Why isn't Bach known today as the world's first pop star?

The answers might be tucked into the middle of a long story Bloomberg Businessweek published last week, in which Sam Grobart described a Samsung factory in Gumi, South Korea.

"The first thing you notice about Gumi is the K-pop," Grobart wrote. "Korean pop music seems to be everywhere outside, usually coming from outdoor speakers disguised as rocks. The music has an easy, mid-tempo style, as if you were listening to a mellow Swing Out Sister track in 1988. The music, a Samsung spokeswoman explains, is selected by a team of psychologists to help reduce stress among employees."

To my casual knowledge, the iconography of pop music and factory work stretches back at least as far as the 1931 film À nous la liberté, directed by René Clair. The musical inspired Charlie Chaplin's own satire of dehumanized labor, Modern Times. But it wasn't until later in the decade, with a report called Fatigue and Boredom in Repetitive Work compiled by the Medical Research Council's Industrial Health Board of Great Britain, that the commodification of the senses was granted the blessings of pseudo-science.

Fatigue and Boredom in Repetitive Work was a watershed document in the history of workplace efficiency. It told of the all-female staff at a firecracker factory in Northern England, concluding that the employees tended to work most efficiently during the times of day when music was piped onto the factory floor. In the study's wake, the music industry saw a boom in the fortunes of Muzak, a three-year-old American company that specialized in such "mood music." By the 1940s, the BBC had started to block time out with special consideration for the ebb-and-flow of the English workday. The anesthetizing potential of records had been spilled into the market, like a genie from a bottle, or rather like Adderall on a college student's nightstand.

Of course, today you don't need to work in a smartphone factory to know firsthand the alliance of music and tedium. You only have to own a smartphone. Grobart's story might call to mind the nearly 100-year tradition of Muzak, Music While You Work, and other such companies and technologies that have used recorded music to dress the unnerving noise of our modern "professional environments." But outside the factories -- where music hums and blares incessantly from our hotels, elevators, restaurants, shopping malls, office cubicles, and earbuds -- it's apparent we use records on each other and ourselves for the same purpose as Samsung's psychologists.

Perversely, we use music to makes us feel less, to remove us from the moment. And when we begin to consider the sheer amount of music we pass through on any given day, it's hard not to wonder if pop music's most common use in this age of increasingly personal electronics is to combat boredom.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of the word "boredom" is from Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House, in 1852. Of course, this doesn't mean people hadn't felt the affliction's symptoms before Dickens's time. But by writing about boredom, Dickens had taken on a sort of buzzword for the century. And no one thought more about boredom than the novelist's contemporaries, many of whom included critics of the era's industrialization.

Typical of these thinkers was Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote about boredom as our refusal to accept our present reality. Later in the century, Comtesse Diane out-bummered Kierkegaard when she wrote, "Boredom is fear of the self." Collectively, 19th century philosophers on boredom tended along these lines of casting aspersions against the new division of labor in society. They saw tedium as an involuntary reaction members of the working class flexed against the degradation of their bodies and minds. Though the French also thought about ennui, which was like boredom, but ran deeper, into the very marrow of modern life.

Today, boredom and ennui are such common ways of being, nobody talks about either much -- nobody except for children. Instead, we talk about music, about celebrities, about Internet memes, and maybe partisan politics. We talk about things which reside very far from reality. Because, for many of us, boredom is our reality.

To invent the record, we needed another element beyond the parchment and pig bristle of Scott's phonautograph. To drag de Bergerac's dream popping-and-skipping into the world required another of the 19th century's more enduring creations. Before we could invent the record, we had to invent the music industry. But before we could invent the music industry -- indeed, before we could invent many of the things that today mark our time -- we first had to invent boredom.

-- @AnStou

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Andrew Stout


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