Fifty shades of beige: audiences who hear but don’t listen



It’s never fails to make me think, workshopping for a week with arts content creators – something I do every year at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. The feedback varies from year to year, although the subject matter – we cover a section of the national journalism curriculum – doesn’t.

Most interesting, are the responses to our listening sessions, where we hear and reflect on a pre-selection of tracks related to jazz in general, South African jazz history, and artists due to appear at the festival. Last year, the group split sharply between fundis and refuseniks, the latter group (although in all other respects perceptive, hardworking arts journalists) apparently afflicted with acute ADD if asked to sit and listen carefully to even a scant three minutes of music.

You see that split in audiences too. This year, a colleague very politely asking some loud chatterers to tone it down (she was trying to immerse herself in the silvery sounds of Rahul Sharma’s santoor) was told: “This is a live gig! If you want to listen to the music buy a CD and stay at home with it!”

But this year’s workshop was very different. Responses in the feedback almost unanimously demanded more listening sessions, with comments like: “The jazz listening sessions taught me how to … identify sounds in the music and the stories that it was telling”; “Listening to the music – I didn’t know that one song could have so many interpretations and meanings to different people.”; “Having grown up with jazz, been hearing jazz playing at home, learning to LISTEN was invaluable.”

Learning to listen is a key skill for any journalist; studies in social interaction suggest that it’s also a key skill for human beings wanting to establish decent relationships. But why, – increasingly, and especially in relation to music – do we need to learn to listen? Why is it so hard and apparently painful for some people to do it?

Admittedly, I’m a dinosaur. I grew up in a post-war working-class family with a very small income. We never owned a TV and rarely went to cinemas or theatres. I learned to listen via the radio: that was my window on the world. I listened to drama, music (sometimes quite weird music), short stories. Paying attention to every word mattered. Later on, I listened to talented DJs like the late John Peel who would orient his listeners’ ears towards the detail and nuance in the tracks he curated and played: “Did you hear what that guitarist was doing?” he’d demand.

Today’s life is not like that. There is sound everywhere: in lifts, supermarkets, malls, offices. You hear it, but it’s so banal that you must actively learn not to listen to it. Many people, young and old, carry their own insulating sounds with them on phones via headphones. Plugged into a tinny sonic blanket, they function cut off from the aural world they travel through. One study estimated that between 2004/5 and 2010/11, the number of people injured or killed by walking in front of moving cars or trains while wearing headphones had trebled – and it has continued to rise. If you screamed, they wouldn’t hear you either.

For some people the headphones are a protest against hearing beige muzak they have not chosen. For others, streaming pop radio sounds, it’s merely an alternative from the 50 shades of beige created by music controllers. As Cassandra Wilson argued in Cape Town: “Pop radio has no dynamics: no peaks or valleys. We’re being fed music that’s not reflecting life…”

Omnipresent sonic commodities which in their mode of delivery cut individuals off from their communities and in their texture flatten the sharp edges of life…sounds a lot like George Orwell’s soma, doesn’t it?

Getting used to music only as a relentless background has definitely changed behaviour at shows. It makes listeners selfish, careless of their neighbours’ comfort; careless of what the artist is trying to communicate; careless of the sounds themselves. A commodified ‘experience’ advertised via selfies and tweets, takes priority: “Look at me – here I am at so-and-so’s gig.” Commenting on current stiff audiences even at punk gigs previously pulsating with pogo-ing bodies, one commentator noted:

‘… the increase in stiff crowds runs parallel to the rise of mobile phones at shows. After all, it’s hard to dance when you’re concentrating on tweeting, taking pictures or recording the show. It’s possible that the crowd are not dancing to protect their mobiles; the risks of going wild are not just to your life and limb but to your connectivity. You certainly can’t tweet “I’m crowd surfing” as it would be too difficult, while tweeting “I crowd surfed” is so two minutes ago.’ . Certainly being with friends, dressing to the nines – whatever – are aspects of the fun of going to hear music. For younger listeners, emotion and experience are definitely the most important aspect of a gig ( ).

But to fully enjoy every dimension of that music – and to competently live life as social beings – we need to learn to listen too. My workshop heard four versions of some songs by Billie Holiday: from the singer herself, and from DeeDee Bridgewater, Jose James and Wilson. They all sounded different and said something different: in the singer’s intention and in each listener’s reception. It was a very modest experiment to open a few ears to jazz.

But maybe it’s worth replicating, in other contexts and with other music genres too: how on earth can you understand To Pimp a Butterfly or Formation (both musical artworks designed to make you think) if you don’t listen? If we don’t listen, we talk right past one another. And we’re living, in South Africa, in 2016, slap in the middle of the kind of mess that results from that.


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