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I Had To Wonder: Are We Defined By Our Listening Preferences?

I’m not referring to our choices of music. It’s more about how we listen, and where.

It’s that specific musical question that has provoked this: an open letter responding to Stereophile’s Jason Victor Serinus’ recent editorial where he does some serious second-guessing of people who use music to seal themselves off from what he thinks should be, predominately, a shared experience.

Allow me, at the risk of sounding the tiniest bit defensive, a rant.

While I can sympathize with — and share, somewhat — Jason’s overall concern for humanity, I wonder…how much time does he spend riding, say, the BART system? I travel under the Bay and into San Francisco most weekdays on it, probably spending about 5 hours a week on the trains…but it seems a lot longer. I’m moderately certain I couldn’t do it without closed-back headphones.

During my work week I sit in a second-floor office in a 160-year-old building the Mission district of San Francisco. It’s along a major MUNI line and it’s noisy. People honk and swear at the buses all day, and it sounds like they’re right next to my drafty front windows. Street people spend their copious spare time screaming at bad drivers, yuppies, hipsters, cops and each other.

When I get on BART to head home, I just want to hear music for a half hour.

Let’s talk BART. There’s that six-minute high-pitched roar when you’re going through the transbay tube. People on cellphones think that, if they yell louder into their cellphones during this part of the trip, the person on the other end will hear them better. People with no one to call often spend the time yelling conversationally at the person next to them. I’ve tried this approach and was hoarse by the time I got to West Oakland.

Folks play music so loudly through their earbuds that you can hear it four seats away.

Some woman will be doing the full TMI on her cell to her friend about her third date with that guy — you know, THAT guy — in a voice so loud she wouldn’t need a cellphone if her friend was in the next car.

A kid will be treating the overhead grab rails like monkey bars and shouting to an oblivious parent to watch me, watch me, hey mommy, watch me! The parent, bless them, usually has earbuds lodged in their head. I like to think they’re far away, possibly indulging in the audiobook of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Beats parenting, right?

A group of wannabe musicians will board the car at Rockridge with tubs and sticks and treat their captive audience to an impromptu, movable (and near-deafening) drum circle. Then they’ll expect passengers to cough up into a tip jar shoved under our noses. More than once I’ve resisted the temptation to donate — in the literal sense.

Listening to music on a cheap pair of headphones during times like this makes life bearable. Pleasant, even.

While on BART in the morning I spend most of the trip browsing music news on my iPad, trying to find publicity-related links that might be good newsletter material at my day job — and listening to music that I think could be relevant to this blog and the space made for me at Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile). Rarely — forgive me — I’ll go rogue and listen to some old Todd Rundgren or Be Bop Deluxe album that’ll make me temporarily forget I’m on BART.

I’m sorry if I somehow missed people waving guns. That’d suck. I’d like to think I’m a good citizen, but I don’t think I’ve ever been oblivious to an assault, or anyone brandishing a weapon. I saw a guy get jacked for his iPod on BART a couple years ago, but it was by a gang of four (presumably) unarmed men, and I doubt I could’ve kicked their asses even if I’d felt inclined. And it taught me to look up and around during stops at every station when the train doors were open; I got a crash course in what you call your basic situational awareness. So there’s that. There’s room for personal growth, even in my everyday, shameful, self-absorbed BART existence.

In his Stereophile editorial, Jason pines for the communal musical (and smoking) experience he had during the summer of love. I can relate, somewhat. A couple years later, in 1969, I vividly remember sitting alone in my oldest brother’s room, relatively drug-free, illuminated only by black lights and day-glo mandala posters — scaring the bejesus out of my 9-year-old self with the White Album (“Revolution 9”, of course).

I wasn’t sharing the experience with my other 6th-grade pals. I was by my lonesome, and not wanting for fellowship.

I still do most of my listening by myself, most likely because the majority of the music I listen to bores the bejesus out of most of the people I know — including passing acquaintances on BART. And that’s not a bad thing. I like to be considerate. And it just means more music for me to love.