Learned Volume 5, Issue 42
This week: What are you listening to when you’re at the cafe? Background music, ambient noise, or nothing at all? Let’s discuss.
Learned is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Of all the myriad changes that come along with getting older, one of the most profound, for me, has been a growing acceptance of silence; it's not uncommon for me, these days, to take my dog for a long walk, nothing in my ears save what arrives there naturally. But that hasn't always been the case.
From roughly thirteen or fourteen years old, I started wanting to have some kind of noise playing at all times. It really didn't matter what I was doing - reading a book, doing homework, cleaning my room, doing chores, I needed to have some kind of background noise. Most of the time it was music, as I got older it switched over to t.v. shows, especially at night. By the time I was living alone as an adult, I became one of those people who leaves the t.v. on all night.
It was a habit I never really questioned until I stopped doing it. On the rare occasions someone would bring it up, I had a stock of ready responses:
Why do I leave the t.v. on? It's multi-tasking. This way I can watch the show and get some cleaning done.
Why do I study with headphones in? It helps me concentrate.
Why do I go to sleep with the radio / a CD / the t.v. / YouTube? Because I can't stand the dark. It's when my brain spins up endless replays of past mistakes, almost happeneds, and the inevitable fact of death.
That last one tends to shut down conversations, somehow.
But last summer, David Thompson, who writes at The Chalkboard Life, asked the question, "How do you rest and rejuvenate?"1 It was in answering this question that I first realized my habits had begun to change. I wrote:
Over the past two years, what had been an occasional, 30-minute walk two or three times a week has become an hour-and-a-half long walk, sometimes twice a day. And the biggest change is that I used to always walk with headphones in, usually with a podcast so I could continue being productive. But after a while, I switched to music, and then only part of the time, and recently, I haven't had anything in my ears at all. I've consciously tried to just "switch off" and let my mind drift off in any direction it wants while I moved my feet. It's been mostly freeing.
But old habits die hard. In recent weeks, I've been leaving YouTube or Netflix running while I move about the house. In part this is because modern tech allows me to have multiple t.v.s running the same show, something that used to be a default when we all had cable t.v. and that kind of disappeared when we moved to the DVD era. And then this caught my eye2:
Ambient denotes something that you don’t have to pay attention to in order to enjoy but which is still seductive enough to be compelling if you choose to do so momentarily.
That's from an article called, “Emily in Paris” and the Rise of Ambient TV. In it, author Kyle Chayka makes the argument, that streaming services like Netflix are purposely and purposefully creating content designed to be played while you're going on with your life.
Netflix is pioneering a genre that I’ve come to think of as ambient television. It’s “as ignorable as it is interesting,” as the musician Brian Eno wrote, when he coined the term “ambient music” in the liner notes to his 1978 album “Ambient 1: Music for Airports,” a wash of slow melodic synth compositions.
I'm not really taking issue with Chayka's argument. But I am taking issue with the wording. I think the programming and content Chayka is talking about already has a descriptive word: background.
I like Brian Eno, but I've never really been a fan of ambient music. See, all those years of listening to music while I was driving or doing homework or washing the dishes, it was always lyrical. I often matched tempo to function and so blasted punk and metal for chores and custom mix-tapes heavily featuring Tori Amos, Bjork, P.J. Harvey, and Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde) to get me to sleep3. But again, always, always, songs with sung components to them.
A few years ago, I embarked on a project I still have not completed - I started doing album by album tours through the entire discography of some of my favorite artists4. Eventually, I got to David Bowie. Specifically, I got to the album Low, which was co-written by Brian Eno and featured Bowie's first forays into ambient and electronic music. It opened my eyes to a genre I had not really considered before and away down the rabbit hole I went.
But none of it was ever really ambient to me. Not in the sense described in Chayka's article. It was more background noise, something to play under the surface and provide a barrier between the world and the space in my head. I didn't play it at night, or when I was driving, or doing anything that required no thought. Instead, I played it while I was reading, or studying, or doing something that required concentration. There was nothing ambient about it, no existing on all sides - it was a wall between me and the world.
Around the same time, I became aware of a bubbling-under idea in the tech world called ambient devices. From Wikipedia:
Ambient devices are a type of consumer electronics, characterized by their ability to be perceived at-a-glance, also known as "glanceable". Ambient devices use pre-attentive processing to display information and are aimed at minimizing mental effort. Associated fields include ubiquitous computing and calm technology. The concept is closely related to the Internet of Things.
I got a Chumby. Chumby consisted of a touchscreen and speaker wrapped in a soft, pillow-like outer covering. It could show you weather updates, play music, and set an alarm clock for you. It was the perfect background device and I still hold out hope that one day we'll get more products like it.
And this tech, too, never really felt ambient. Ambient stems from PIE roots that mean "front" or "forehead" and, through centuries and languages, evolved into its modern form where it means "all around" or "pervasive." But that's not what Chumby (or other devices) were. Sure the clock or weather might have been ambient in the sense that it was just there, on display, whenever you needed it, but the other features were much more background-like: audio and video, games and text, these floated between one's concentration and the world outside, a barrier against distraction.
I may5 be overthinking this. But I find myself wondering now, as I try to navigate a new, liminal space between old and new habits, what the implications are as I leave background noise behind. Does it mean I'm more mentally healthy? Or just that I'm too tired to build the perfect mixtape for going to sleep to? I don't have any answers there. I suspect I may not for a while6. So, instead, I'll close with question I often ask my students: What are you listening to when you’re at the cafe? Background music, ambient noise, or nothing at all?
Down the Rabbit Hole
Two quick articles on why the youths are adding ~ussy to everything. Short answer: because they're human and humans like to play with their words. Longer answer, read on:
From the Archives
The New Yorker article I quote in this week’s piece is from November 16, 2020. As it happens, that was a Monday and I published a piece in Learned that same day. I wrote about commonplace books and how we highlight things we’re reading. Here is Learned Volume Three, Issue 34, Common Place.
David has just announced that he’ll be taking a break from The Chalkboard Life, but I want to encourage everyone to go read his two years of back-issues. He discusses education and life and is one of my favorite writers here on SubStack.
This article is from 2020. Over my winter break, I managed to get my Instapaper reading list down from four pages to just one left still to read!
A mix I still stand by, adding in recent work by Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, and, did I mention Bjork?
The project was prompted by Elvis Costello's collaboration with the Roots. As projects go, it's a hell of a fun one to get into, just don't talk to your friends too much about it or they start avoiding you at parties.
I am absolutely overthinking this.
I wish I could end with something clever and quippy like, "The true ambience could only be found when I turned off the background noise." But I have no idea what the hell that even means and I don't feel like this overly-long essay has earned anything quite that précieux.