In search of a subway soundtrack

October 9, 2009

Most audiences notice when a concert hall has extraordinary acoustics. A church is likely to garner criticism from its congregants if sound doesn’t carry to the back pews. But commuting to work in New York City with iPod in tow made me realize that sonic resonance in this era goes beyond such hallowed places of listening to, for example, the subway.

Most curmudgeonly critics of personal listening devices think of them as sealing the subject off from social interaction. As Dan Barry notes in a recent New York Times article on the history of the Walkman and its implications, “…we are stuck in pause, still listening to glorious Pavarotti but also blocking out the aural serendipity of our existence — the chance conversations, the songbird trills, even the bleats of car horns.”

Nonetheless, I discovered that even in the solipsistic cocoon of the iGroover (n. one who listens to an iPod while traveling, allowing musical vibes to permeate his soul, resulting in silly head-bobbing motions) the socio-acoustic venue still shapes the listening experience. This phenomenon occurs to a greater extent when one wears plastic ear buds from the Brandeis bookstore that include such features as auto-disintegration and two-way speaker capabilities so everyone around can share in your musical bounty.

The question of what to listen to when riding the subway is one that demands anthropological, geographical, and psychological knowledge, to say nothing of acoustic dynamics. Not understanding the necessity of this cross-disciplinary approach, I made the near-fatal mistake of listening to gentle folksy crooner, Nick Drake, on my first commute day.

It wasn’t long before the cacophonous metallic squeals of the train invaded Mr. Drake’s ballads in a most inconsiderate manner. Moreover, it may have been my imagination, but I noticed at least half a dozen people shaking their heads and sneering as if to say, “newbie.” Looking around and catching what Barry calls, “the aural serendipity of our existence,” I realized the sad truth that this fair British minstrel ought never be played on the subway. The overarching aura, a product of homeless panhandlers, screaming babies, anxious Wall Street stuffed shirts, newspaper fragments, graffiti scratches and body odor didn’t jibe with the English minstrel, and that’s all there was to it.

From that day forward I made it my goal to find the perfect tunes to complement my underground journeys. Notorious B.I.G. was my first choice, as my 2 train path from Brooklyn to Harlem ought to make the choice seem obvious. Biggie was my first great success, his funky grooves and streetwise lyrics melding beautifully with the movements of the unwashed masses as they embarked on their “everyday struggles” (not excluding those Wall Street hustlers). The only problem came when the “#!*@Me (Interlude)” came on, featuring a graphic sexual simulation. My hands were otherwise occupied at the time, and my two-way speakers kicked into high gear at the, shall we say, climax. Though the stroller-wielding matrons didn’t tar and feather me, their evil eyes had the same effect. That was the last time I listened to Big on the train.

Somehow no other hip hop artist worked quite as well as Biggie, even geographically appropriate ones like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Nas, and Jay-Z. So I decided to try another tactic and tapped into another quintessentially NYC outfit: the Velvet Underground. This was also a no-brainer, and it seemed like John Cale was probably trying to approximate the subway’s mechanical dissonance in many of the band’s songs. “Venus in Furs” actually sounds sexier and rawer in the subway than from an expensive stereo, and the stroller mamas didn’t seem to object.

But the fact that an artist was associated with the hoods I traveled between didn’t guarantee success, as Vampire Weekend and the Dirty Projects, two Brooklyn indie groups revealed. The indifferent train clanks and hisses mocked the former’s delicate Afro-pop licks, while the latter almost made me acquire a distaste for Dave Longstreth’s acquired taste vocals.

Likewise, some bands far from NYC synced up better with the public transportation system. Scotsmen the Jesus and Mary Chain followed the Velvet Underground’s lead in playing music that might have actually been recorded on a subway. And British new wave pioneers Joy Division—most recently ripped off by Brooklyn’s Interpol—capture a late night ride downtown better than they have any right to.

A subway soundtrack requires more finesse and subtlety than other types of iPod listening. Perhaps a person with so-called noise-canceling headphones might have a different story, but shabby ear buds make for a new kind of hybrid listening experience.

At worst, feminist passengers will crucify me for listening loudly to misogynistic rap songs. At best, I’ll combine my personal music preferences with “the aural serendipity of our existence.” Looking out amongst the knowing, apathetic faces that surround me on the train, however, I realize my situation is probably best summed up in a Velvet Underground lyric: “Everybody’s pinned you, but nobody cares.”

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