Against Public Music

A

In Fallout: New Vegas, you are an unfortunate courier who is shot in the head but has the fortune to survive it. For the remainder of the game you can choose to engage in various quests to find the man responsible.

One major problem is that you live in a post-apocalyptic world which is still feeling the effects of a centuries old Atomic war. You not only have to contend with casino bosses who want to (and do!) shoot you in the head; you must also be mindful of where you walk, as radiation from the fallout still seeps from the ground.

This is especially troublesome when your quest takes you underground.

In one quest you must explore an abandoned vault that is still soaked in radiation. Normally the radiation is localized and temporary, but here it fills the entire vault and is perpetual.

Now, as the game mechanic has it, a little radiation here and there won’t kill you. Get away from it fast enough and you’re usually fine. But as you delve deeper down, the radiation increases. It is slight at first, barely registering on your Geiger counter. But as the time wears on, the pernicious effects of the radiation begin to manifest. If you haven’t brought along enough Rad-X and Rad-Away, eventually you won’t even have enough time to get away and get healed, so pernicious is the radiation.

Not that this happened to me…

Pernicious things are often the most dangerous, all the more for their subtlety. You can get by (so it seems) for awhile with very few noticeable repercussions. But eventually it’s too late, and you can’t get away.

We often associate this with disease, bad choices, etc., but I’ve found something equally pernicious and equally toxic, all the more for its ubiquity.

This malady is Public Music.

Now, by public music I do not necessarily mean live public performances of music (such as a symphony) nor necessarily public participation in music (such as at church, although churches are nevertheless often regular offenders).

Rather, I am referring to the all-encompassing affront against one’s auditory organs by means of nearly every public venue taking upon itself the mantle of publicly attacking everyone within earshot (which is perhaps an apropos way of describing the proximity…).

Think for a moment of a recent visit to a restaurant. As you were sitting across from your dinner companion, attempting to have a conversation, what darkened sludge formed the auditory backdrop and attempted to intrude with every passing moment?

Or as you browsed in the grocery store, desperately attempting to concentrate on a meal plan or find an item that will make that dish, what foreign mercenary elbowed its way into your contemplation without apology?

Or as you entered the church to pray and turn your mind’s gaze towards the divine, what obscene flood of ephemeral noise rushed to fill any empty space into which one might possibly scale the wall of one’s self and preferences?

Gentle reader may wonder why such over-the-top language is reserved for a seeming trifle, at worst a nuisance. But the thing about trifles is that they add up over time, insidiously working their way into our hearts and minds, until we find that we ourselves comfortable with them, and perhaps even uncomfortable without them.

The reason businesses invade your space with music is precisely to distract you. The incessant wall of noise is meant to lower your critical thinking, making you more susceptible to influence and suggestion, which culminates in a larger than otherwise purchase. To be sure, it is shepherded under the guise of creating an exciting or comfortable space, but really it is meant to make you more likely to go along with the crowd, which makes it easier for you open your wallet.

It is terribly difficult to have a conversation at a bar precisely for this reason; the throbbing rhythms are designed to put you in a state of mind where your inhibitions are lowered, and sure, why not another round. As the holidays approach you will be bombarded by festive music, because we all want that Christmas spirit- and in the modern West shopping is part and parcel of that spirit. And how better to deck those halls than to open up a charge account at your favorite retailer!

Now this may all be trifles and marketing, but this is perhaps merely symptomatic of a deeper disease. It will perhaps be noticed that the public music we are constantly accosted by does not engender contemplation but rather represents the current banality of whatever is deemed popular (the writer apologizes for the repetition). It represents a perpetual coarsening of the intellect and a wholesale abandonment of critical thought, for we as a culture have trained ourselves to be signaled by and herded according to what we hear.

In fact, it can often seem eerie to enter an establishment where this assault does not occur. We speak of how “it’s so quiet,” and how that feels “weird” or “creepy.” So acclimated to incessant musical noise have we become that we feel we cannot think or function unless it is present.

One can understand the market’s acceptance and utilization of this; after all, if public music equals more dollars, then the temptation is difficult to allay. What is more disappointing, however, is how churches have in large part taken upon themselves this marketing tactic, perhaps wrapping it in different motives, it’s true, but accomplishing the same degradation in the process.

I have been in my share of worship planning meetings at many different churches (and thus bear my share of the blame), and the pre-service music is taken as a given, as the default “why-wouldn’t-we-do-this?” position. We justify it by means of creating a welcoming and inviting atmosphere, and I have little reason to doubt those motivations as they stand. But have we ever stopped to think of exactly what sort of atmosphere we are creating, or if we might be engaging in the same sort of rational deadening that the rest of our culture practices as matter of course?

After all, one goal of all of our planning and preparation is precisely to minimize silence. We don’t call it silence per se; rather, we reframe it as “dead time.” We strive to make our transitions seamless so we go from one bit of stimulation to another without a pause or break in between. On the radio or tv dead time is, of course, a no-no, but rarely have I seen this equivocation questioned. To wit, why must silence in our worship be seen as dead-time? Have we so accepted the noise that pervades our every waking moment that we default to it as what constitutes a “good” service or “good” worship?

Now, I have certainly been to worship services where there are intentional times of silence. However, these things are almost always something “special,” and often (whether the irony is perceived or not) in the context of teaching about how we are so afflicted by noise and busy-ness. But then we transition neatly into the next form of stimulation, and when the service ends we fire up Spotify to make sure there isn’t the dreaded awkward dead time.

After all, someone might have the chance to let a germ of illumination sprout in their mind, but, alas, we can’t have “dead time.” It might be awkward.

This may all seem overwrought, but if we look more deeply into the matter, perhaps some of this is justified. After all, we recognize that we are all constantly assaulted by noise. Most of the time this affront is the unendingly noxious droning of the current cultural musical banality. But then we attempt to usher people into worship- what we believe to be an encounter with the transcendent- by means of the same sort of current cultural musical banality.

So afraid are we of giving people the space to be uncomfortable in any way- perhaps uncomfortable enough to be able to encounter the divine- that we find the need to fill up every moment with what we ourselves can produce, to turn a potential time of prayer into a time where it becomes increasing difficult to think or to even have the opportunity to contemplate God.

It may be argued that it really would be too awkward; after all, if it’s eerie to walk around a store when there’s no music, is that the type of environment we want in our worship? What would people do, besides awkwardly sit there waiting for the service to start, pensively glancing at each other? All things being equal, wouldn’t it be better to have the din of music as a background, so they can be comfortable as they drink their coffee and dunk their donuts and fellowship together? Isn’t it just too awkward to allow people the space to think, and- saints preserve us!- to possibly pray?

Perhaps it is simply the case that we are already too far gone, and that the best we can hope for is to accommodate reality as it is, in essence to make the patient with radiation poisoning as comfortable as possible so there’s less chance of it being noticed.

Because if we seriously examine what we do, we too often treat our customers exactly like the world does, in hopes of selling them what we have to offer.

What should be a refuge from the slings and arrows of the mundane and the banal becomes simply another outpost on its frontier, or perhaps a stronghold within its capitol.

If we are trying to sell an experience of God, is it any wonder we end up behaving as our retail counterparts?

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  • Well I seem to be commenting on everything, but since you somehow found a picture of me to attach to the heading of this one I feel I must. Yes, Yes, Yes, I cannot abide the incessant noise! And I am not as introspective about it as you. Suffering from mild ADD plus being a musician makes the cultural environment of constant music a form of purgatory. (not quite hell, but in anticipation of it) The picture therefore is a perfect rendering of my response.

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Jason Watson

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