A UBIQUITOUS MODE OF LISTENING?
- Those of us living
in industrialized settings have developed, from the omnipresence of
music in our daily lives, a mode of listening dissociated from specific
generic characteristics of the music. In this mode we listen alongside
or simultaneous with other activities. It is one vigorous example
of the non-linearity of contemporary life. This listening is a new
and noteworthy phenomenon, one that has the potential to demand a
radical rethinking of our various fields of musical and cultural inquiry.
- I want to propose that
we call this mode of listening ubiquitous listening for two reasons.
First, it is the ubiquity of listening that has taught us this mode. Precisely
because music is everywhere, Ryan forgot he was doing an assignment and got
up to wash the dishes. Second,
it relies on a kind of sourcelessness. Whereas we are accustomed
to thinking of most musics (and most cultural products) in terms of authorship
and location, this music comes from the plants and the walls and, potentially,
our clothes. It comes from everywhere and nowhere. Its projection looks to
erase its production as much as possible, posing instead as a quality of the
- For these reasons, the
term ubiquitous listening best describes this phenomenon. As has
been widely remarked, the development of recording technologies in the twentieth
century disarticulated performance space and listening space. You can listen
to opera in your bathtub and arena rock while riding the bus. And it is precisely
this disarticulation that has made ubiquitous listening possible. Like ubiquitous
computing, ubiquitous listening blends into the environment, taking place
without calling conscious attention to itself as an activity in itself. It
is, rather, ubiquitous and conditional, following us from room to room, building
to building, and activity to activity.
- However, the idea of ubiquitous listening as perhaps the dominant mode of listening in contemporary life raises another problem: does this mode of listening produce and accede to a set of genre norms?
A UBIQUITOUS GENRE?
- According to
the Dictionary of Theories, genre as a concept
was first articulated by Aristotle and is a literary term for the
classification of texts: Members of a genre have common characteristics
of style and organization and are found in similar cultural settings
(Bothamley 228). By those common characteristics, then, members of
a genre can be recognized. Across the media, genre has, of course,
become a central organizing principle of both production and consumption;
as John Hartley puts it: genres are agents of ideological closurethey
limit the meaning potential of a given text, and they limit the commercial
risk of the producer corporations (128). In this sense, genres
might be understood to discipline reception.
- The most widely
cited definition of genre in popular music studies, Franco Fabbris
1982 essay A Theory of Musical Genres, sees genre as a
complex of style or musical features, performance space, and performance
and fan/listener behaviorless a discipline than a field of activity.
Robert Walsers discussion in Running with the Devil expands
in this direction, combining Jamesons text-based discussion
with Bakhtins horizon of expectations:
Genres are never sui generis; they are developed, sustained, and re-formed by people, who bring a variety of histories and interests to their encounters with generic texts. (27)
Popular music genres are understood to include both shared musical features and audience expectations and practices. In Stockfelts terms, style, listening, and situation are all part of genre-making processes.
- In all these
discussions of genre, musical features are conceived expansively,
reaching beyond pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm to include timbre,
vocal inflections, and recording techniques. Taken together, a ubiquitous
mode of listening and a careful, socially grounded understanding of
genre might make the case for a genre called ubiquitous music.
It shares certain features of performance spacesimultaneity
with other activities and a sense of sourcelessness. While including
an extraordinarily wide range of musical features, it is generally
shaped by mono playback, absence of very high and very low frequencies,
absence of vocals, and particular attention to volume as a condition
of the other simultaneous activities.
- The problem is, of course, that ubiquitous music does not depend on texts belonging only to its own genre, but rather welcomes all texts in a pluralist leveling of difference and specificity (which might explain its partiality for adopting world music forms). Perhaps it is a new kind of genre, what we might, tongue firmly in cheek, call a postmodern pastiche para-genre. But more likely, I think, it signals the death knell of genre as a primary organizing axis for popular music activities.