The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

Words Without Song

When was the last time you heard anyone singing in the street?

I mean, not at some “street fair” with mic and an electric backup group. Not a professional singer. Just someone walking in the street and singing aloud. For joy or melancholy, or even just mindlessly. Not humming off-key while listening to an earbud or whatever it’s called (“brain implant,” for instance). No, just simply…singing.

Photo: Dave Sez.
Photo: Dave Sez.

Since I live in a WASP-ish, artsy upstate village where singing in public might seem dangerous or anti-social, I asked my Brooklyn friend James, the music teacher and concert pianist, “When was the last time you heard anyone singing in the street?” And he answered: “Except for one insane guy who thinks he’s an opera diva and sings arias around Park Slope, it has actually been a very long time since I heard anyone sing in the street.” Other people I’ve quizzed on the subject over the last few years tend to agree.

My village is a college town, but no drunken version of “Boola-Boola” ever rends the night. The students are frequently drunk, but the only nocturnal noise they make is “Wooo-wooo!” or “FUUUUCK.” No ukelele plinks to a high tenor beneath any sorority window. No upright piano plunks for jolly amateurs on dark summer porch. And no singing in the street. Ever.

As a corollary to this, I’ve also noticed that one never sees children playing by themselves outdoors anymore. In my memory this is how I spent 90 percent of my childhood; but today’s viewscapes are eerily devoid of autonomous kids. Either all the children are indoors all the time watching TV, or engaged in video games, or they’re sharing quality time with their Oedipal Units, or else it’s just too dangerous—too many cars, too many Arab terrorists—or what?

Admittedly all this amounts to nothing but anecdotal evidence. I’ve reached the age of the Senior Discount, and am nursing a no doubt drug-distorted memory of the Way Things Used to Be. For example, I remember taking the bus home from work in Baltimore one evening in 1966 or so, and everyone on the bus was singing along with some Motown hit, maybe “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.”

I can remember walking home late one snowy night in Tehran (Iran) in 1972 and hearing a lone night-watchman chanting a ghazal by Hafez as he warmed his hands over a barrel fire. But then in “primitive Asia,” lots of people were always singing in the street, or at least chanting their prayers in public. India, Africa, Indonesia—a veritable cacophony of amateurs, possibly still singing even today, despite all technological progress. Only in America and Europe, I suspect, have we indeed achieved a kind of Silent Spring—but it’s people, rather than birds, who have lost their personal songs.

Why should this be so?

The obvious answer (obvious to a Luddite, anyway) is that technological mediation has displaced and alienated music from the sphere of individual and social self-creativity into the star-realm of professionalism, where someone else (or rather some prosthesis or machine) sings for you, sings on your behalf, in exchange for money.

Gradually but inexorably, recordings (each one the tombstone of a live performance) replaced any need we might have felt to express ourselves in song, spontaneously and autonomously. And then computer technology allowed us access to virtually all recordings, all the time, for free, so that we could construct for ourselves a mechanized life score, or rather, soundtrack—a constant auto-bombardment of mediated music, none of which belongs to us as humans, but only as consumers.

Our only “folk music” nowadays is Pop (always your basic 4/4 rock ’n’ roll in various new packages)—but the teenagers who are today (right next door) practising to be Rock Stars have no volkish interest in personal or communal music. They dream of success—i.e., that other people will consume their product. Nothing remains here of the Immediate. Here, everything is mediated, separated—alienated.

Thus the paradox: The medium that gives us all the music of all time now at once simultaneously takes away all music from our selves (or “souls,” as they say in primitive Asia). Like that dire and uncanny character in Irish folklore known as The Man Who Had No Story, we are the people who have no song. Life without music would be a mistake, says Nietzsche. We are that mistake. 


Peter Lamborn Wilson

Peter Lamborn Wilson is an American anarchist author, primarily known for advocating the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues