On wearing headphones

One of my favorite reality TV characters is Jay McCarroll, who won the first season of Project Runway. He seemed like the kind of person you’d want to meet for brunch or a late-night movie after a shitty day at the office. A friend, in other words. He was also the kind of person who declined $100,000 and a mentorship with Banana Republic so he wouldn’t be tethered to another person’s vision and a company’s bottom line. Mainly, I loved how he used headphones as an accessory to tie his collection together.

What do headphones mean? There’s a class status associated with them. One of my professors observed that when he commuted to Fordham, he saw more white ear buds the closer he got to work and a greater variety of clunky, outdated sets the further public transportation took him away from campus. I plug a pair of Sony MDR-V150s into my smart phone when I go for a run, take the bus, or work from home. I don’t get any sound from the right side. Tech-conscious consumers might gather that I’m a late adopter and a frugal consumer regardless of my grad student income. They may also think I don’t care about sound quality, which is sometimes true. Often I’ll take the comfort of music over sonic fidelity. I do share a Bose set with my partner for deejaying, as optimal sound quality is necessary.

What do headphones say about how we interact with the world and one another? It wouldn’t be off-base to say that I use them so I don’t have to listen to you. When I’m on the bus, I don’t want to hear or get roped into errant conversations. When I’m out for a run, I am very conscious about having my femininity objectified. I also think running is boring without music. When I’m coming off the bus to teach or attend class, I pick songs to center myself and boost my confidence.

There’s an embedded privilege to using technology to opt out of daily social interactions. What does it mean if I don’t want to talk to strangers on the bus? What would it mean if I didn’t have a set of headphones to remove me from my immediate surroundings? What does it mean that I would never wear headphones while walking alone at night?

One time last spring, I forgot to pack my headphones and a chatty older woman asked me a bunch of questions about what I was reading. It was Derrida’s essay on différance, so I couldn’t answer her conclusively. But for some reason I got really angry that she was talking to me. Some of this had to do with the 7 a.m. commute. A lot of it had to do with feeling like she was invading my space. So I curtly said that I didn’t know. Then I felt terrible, because she was just trying to make conversation. But she found someone else to talk to, so I continued mouthing Derrida’s words silently to myself. Another time I was heading home from a long day at school. Two women were talking about a mutual friend applying to grad school. They were dead against her decision, because what gainfully employed individual would go into the humanities in this economy? I took this question personally because it’s what I ask myself every day (grad school is an act of faith). So I scowled at them, changed seats, and listened to Can’s “Moonshake” because it was roughly the length of the ride before my stop and, as Jonathan Sterne points out with the help of several scholars in The Audible Past, “[r]elations of space become relations of time.”

What you may gather from these anecdotes is that I’m not great with people and I use music to distance myself from them. In part, that’s true. But first of all, who’s good with people on the bus? This is a loaded question. I’ve shared the bus with people with mental problems or drink to excess to dull some kind of pain. Many people take the bus because they can’t afford not to if they don’t have a car. They may travel great distances to work, school, and home (if they have one). Someone is driving that bus. This blurs the boundaries between passengers’ personal space and drivers’ work space. That’s why I always thank them for dropping me off, except for that one racist driver who yelled at a group of teenagers seated in the back for playing some hip hop at moderate volume.

But as a cultural studies scholar, why would I cut myself off from forced interactions between strangers on public transit? Sometimes I don’t. When a little girl sits next to you, names the women on the cover of the book you’re reading, and introduces you to her alter ego, you leave the headphones in your bag. Sometimes I use the bus to work through shit. I’ve cried on the bus twice this year, thus bringing strangers into my reality. Like Robin Scherbatsky, I wasn’t ashamed. I was overwhelmed and allowed myself some release. As a feminist, I believe crying in public defies societal expectations that women are supposed to suppress their feelings. But who gets to cry on the bus? And even if I pat myself on the back for being subversive, I leave my sunglasses on and dial down the volume. I see these people on a regular basis.

In a larger sense, headphones keep me connected to the world just as they appear to remove me from it. I study music culture, which means I’m constantly listening to music. What am I listening for? Often people take on research in familiar areas and see and hear things they expect to find. In my field, fandom often informs our research. But even as I accumulate knowledge, I put on headphones to hear sounds I’m not familiar with. A curiosity with the unknown is what drove me to host a college radio show, to start a blog, and to book a deejay gig at a local restaurant.

This means living with anxiety. I’m not sure why I booked a set at Alchemy. I needed grocery money. My partner spins regularly at Natt Spil, which engendered a sense of competition just as much as it comforted me to know that you can play records in front of people and not die from it. But I have this drive to do things and put myself in situations that I don’t quite understand. As much as I can tell, it’s about entering into a cultural tradition with people like Tara Rodgers and the women she interviewed for Pink Noises who wanted to prove they were fluent enough with technology and their own record collections to pull it off.

Proving myself wasn’t the only part of my decision, though. As I get older, more confident, and kinder to myself, I identify feminism with self-actualization and possibility more so than with marginalization. For me, it’s about holding on to that feeling while channeling my anger at oppressions within and outside of feminism toward productive, transformative work and living a life I respect. So I think about music in terms of sharing. I do this in part because I’m finishing Lawrence Lessig’s Remix and just finished Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age and they talk quite a bit about sharing economies. I also do this in part because so often music, as with many taste cultures, encourages insiderism and amassing cultural capital that, if you’re a real dick, you withhold to lord over people.

I recently made a mix CD for a seminar discussion I facilitated on Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Place and Time because I didn’t assume all of my classmates spent their twenties listening to the Butchies and Le Tigre. Having been isolated from film scholarship on movies I haven’t seen (and worse, scholarship that used pyschoanalysis to explain those films), I thought band names don’t mean anything if you read over them without an aural reference point. I had knowledge that I wanted to share. I renewed that knowledge as I made the mix, adding songs by contemporary queer artists whose work enriches or challenges Halberstam’s interpretation of queer subcultural practice.

I did something similar in prepping my deejay gig. I reread Jessica Hopper’s Rookie post on deejaying. I pulled every album I thought I’d need, combed through my favorite music podcasts (see blogroll) for suggestions, and downloaded a bunch of songs. I was putting together a mix of soul, R&B, and hip hop tracks from female artists, which was informative. You could build an entire set around obscure funk and post-disco tracks that were repurposed as recognizable samples. You could do an entirely different set devoted to songs originally recorded by black women that were later popularized by white women.

One thing became clear to me as I was putting my set together: I was hearing a lot of black women’s voices. I wasn’t sure what it meant, though s.e. smith’s “Writing the Other” floated through my mind. I wanted to honor these women, their voices, their subjectivities, and use my three-and-a-half hour set to develop a discursive musical history you could dance, drink, chat, and hook up to.

By my high standards, I’d give myself a B-. I need to work on transitions. Raymond Williams’ concept of flow is foundational to my discipline. Though he was talking about how television programs bleed into advertising and one another, I thought about the intellectual labor involved in being able to make connections between songs based on shared compositional and thematic elements and turning that into a coherent listening experience for other people. It involves anticipating the audience’s needs and using equipment as a barrier from them.

I kept thinking about the limitations of genre. I only think genres are useful when blown up, as Kathryn Bigelow did with her “wet western” Point Break and as Joe Cornish did with his allegorical urban sci-fi action comedy Attack the Block. Music is no exception. As a music listener, what I enjoy most about Girls Rock Camp is hearing songs that don’t quite work–a vocalist channeling Adele opposite a bassist trying not to channel Kim Gordon, a punky chorus about RSVPing to a party, a haunting vocal solo in an otherwise cheerful song about summer vacation, two keyboardists and one guitarist in the same band. So as much as I love playing Betty Davis, I kept wondering what “Bar Hoppin'” would sound like paired with the Meat Purveyors’ “Thinking About Drinking” instead of El Riot’s “Do It Right.” I want to hear all women at once. I also want to better field requests, which means letting go of the music so I can play reggae for one patron and Azealia Banks’ “212” for a group of friends and get personal satisfaction out of it too.

For me, headphones create a conduit between unfamiliar texts and interpersonal relations. I was wearing headphones when Frank Ocean came out. I used my headphones to take in Planningtorock’s amazing “Patriarchy Over and Out,” which a college friend recommended to me via gchat (incidentally, his artwork considers how people engage with Internet culture). I used my headphones when crafting this post. I’ll use my headphones when I’m on the bus, though I’ll always use the set that doesn’t register sound in one ear in case someone wants to strike up an interesting conversation. I use my headphones to at once retreat from the world and understand my place within it.


  1. distance88

    Are these sensible shoes on my feet
    I wear my shades so our eyes don’t meet
    I’m scared every fuckin’ day
    I wear my headphones so I can’t hear what you say

    –“Can I Run” L7

  2. Luke

    “As a feminist, I believe crying in public defies societal expectations that women are supposed to suppress their feelings.”

    Is that really about women though? Conventional thinking is that men are expected to suppress their emotions more than women, I don’t think you can make a serious case women are expected to suppress their emotions significantly more than men. It seems like a lot of stuff feminists object to is actually just peer pressure which is a problem for both genders. Why not take the ideology out of it and just look at it for what it is? For example, instead of crying being an expression of your feminity, can’t you just be a person who doesn’t feel like conforming to the social norm? That way you’re not alienating people who you actually have a lot in common with.

  3. Pingback: Finding a Balance | Feminist Music Geek

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