I am addicted to walking with my headphones in my ears. It’s something I try to give up from time to time, purposefully leaving the headphones at home before going outdoors to prove to myself that a day without them isn’t that bad, that the sounds of the world around are sufficiently interesting. The thing is, I can’t prove it.
As I cross the doorway of where I live it always brings with it a little anxiety, although most of the time unnoticed, it is nonetheless still present. Stepping onto the street the senses are immediately under attack, assailed by bicycles, cars, and other people. It is a daily assault that the urban being undergoes to get to wherever he needs to be, one whose unpleasantness, when at its worst, can be pretty bad. When they city is nasty, it is very nasty. So why wouldn’t we want to replace the noise and confusion around us with a soundtrack of our own choice? It seems like a great idea, when a truck grinds to a halt at a traffic light, instead of hearing its unnecessarily loud bang (that strange blast, like the crack of a whip) it can be given a different noise, a piece of music randomly assigned by our iPod. This gives us a feeling of power over our surroundings—we feel, in a way, that we are slightly more in control, slightly less lost. But this power is illusory, it exists only inside the mind, where the use of headphones temporarily transforms the city from a harsh reality into a film set, a site of creative possibility with us in the director’s chair.
It is an innately urban practice, this walking with headphones; rarely do you see someone out on a country walk with their ears wreathed in electrical wires. Just as much a form of defence as entertainment, the headphones add an extra layer to our protection against the outside environment, a type of aural armour that aids the daily struggle. As city populations expand and space gets increasingly cramped, so we become ever more anonymous and alienated, yet at the same time our lust for individuality grows, the need to differentiate ourselves from the swarming, globular masses. Headphones play an interesting role in this, mimicking the peculiar, dialectical effect of population expansion, but in a much more exaggerated and amplified way. For as soon as you plug in, you are forcing yourself to be alienated from your surroundings, detaching yourself from lived experience, but simultaneously, also, the act works to counter this by intensifying the illusion of individuality: no one is walking around to the same music as me, no one is seeing the world accompanied by my soundtrack. This is why headphones become a crutch, surrogates for individuality, granting immediate access both to anonymity and uniqueness. The headphone-wearer is, in part, imposing
a certain flaneurism upon himself, that old paradigm for cultured life the modern city—part of the crowd yet in some way detached, participatory yet also critical. However, in the twenty-first century this once elusive state now, through a pair of headphones, becomes attainable for all.
There is also an oddly appealing biological impulse to wear these things: they close up your ears, not just symbolically to protect the mind from outside invasion, but also to complete the gaps in the physical seam of your body. The ear is a naked hole, and the headphone acts as a type of plug that fills it in, representing corporeal completeness. This is a reason headphones are so popular, why they have been such success; it is their ability, although existing as seemingly superfluous technological equipment, to fulfil a requirement that we never knew that we had before. False need, which is at the heart of capitalism’s self-perpetuating drive, is conjured through the use of headphones, a need both physical and psychological, the need to complete the self. Adding something tangible to your body whilst embellishing your surroundings with a musical soundtrack, through repetitive use headphones quickly become assimilated into the structural make up of walking, so that it is now “normal” to hear your favourite music played wherever you want, wherever you want.
I am fascinated by the way in which modern man makes use of these everyday objects and his surroundings to give off unspoken impressions and undeclared codes. For instance, in certain situations the mobile phone is used in the same way as headphones or the cigarette, as an unwritten declaration that a person is busy, that he is occupied by something, in order to stave off awkwardness. Waiting for a friend at the pub, for example, is made just that little bit easier by either taking out your phone or starting to smoke: you look less sad, less lost, less stood-up. This is very similar to act of walking with headphones. That famous quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell replies to Jack’s admission that he smokes, “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is,” is still true today: smoking, like using a mobile phone, is an occupation open to all. However, this is an occupation that is used as a defence against being seen to be vacant or unoccupied, where the look of idleness is quickly transformed into an aesthetic of busyness. There is surely nothing idler than smoking or listening to a song on your ipod, but they both share the vague look of industry and employment, a look that we all crave in some shape or form.
My last thoughts on walking with headphones are concerned with its cinematic aspects. With headphones on we inhabit a space on the border between life and art, between the real and the fictive. As our life and its surroundings are given a unique soundtrack, so reality’s tough exterior is punctured and compromised, and all of a sudden we are living in a giant film set of our own making—when a traffic light change corresponds perfectly with the beginning of a new song it is no longer an accident, but choreography, under the direction of our own fantasies. In our minds, however, the headphones unearth a split between outer reality and inner fiction, a split that already exists in us despite the music, but is brought to light in heightened fashion. At the same time this split is mimicked by a conceptual tear between real and imagined vision: our eyes look outwards at the real world but our mind is elsewhere, presenting us with another view, the view of a fictional camera that films us as we walk.
It is surely not a good thing to impose this kind of alienation on ourselves and completely disconnect from audible exterior reality. I sometimes think of all the sounds I must have missed out on as I walk, caught in my own soundtrack, with natural noise replaced by music. However, perhaps the temporary illusion of living in a film of your own making is preferable to anything, even if it is only an illusion. I certainly think so.