You might be asking yourself: Why would anyone do this? In the world of endless podcasts and the need for constant escape from Trump tweets, why would someone ever subject themselves to a month without headphones? I calculated that any given day I had my headphones in 40% of the day if not more. Podcast, music, Netflix, work, working out or my commute — they were in. As a self-declared audiophile I:
wanted to see if it was possible
my ears could use a break.
This all started in San Francisco when I forgot my headphones at a friend’s place while watching Insecure.
On my first day trying this, I witnessed a typical NYC viral subway moment. If there was ever a time for me to have been a contributor to the footage that’s found on WorldStarHipHop this was it. A subway dancer entered the train. He quietly prepped his radio and pedestrians for the ensuing show. But, things took a turn when he gestured one woman, in particular, to move from the pole. She instantly erupted, in a tone that the whole train car could hear, letting him know he picked the wrong person.
“Nope, there won’t be no show today, nope they won’t be no show today.”
She was incessant. We all sat in disbelief. For all I know, the car was morally divided. One possible half seeing her as a subway hero for stopping annoying teenagers from interrupting quiet commutes after a longs days work with loud music and dangerous acrobatics. The other half possibly annoyed that someone who had ample place to stand elsewhere would be rude and obnoxious to a young man who was simply having fun and trying to earn a couple extra bucks through one of the most watched pastimes of New York: subway entertainment. His first response was amazement as someone who was being denied a chance to prove themselves.
“Really, you not gonna let me perform? Forreal?”- he squealed.
They went back and forth for 5 minutes. He pleaded his case, but it only strengthened her resolve. The more he stood up for himself, the bigger the smiles grew of onlookers — myself included. We all saw ourselves in him. Within the span of five minutes, he transitioned from a denied subway entertainer to someone who was denied a right of expression, a right to be heard. There was no dancing, but the back and forth between the two was entertainment enough. We reveled in his candor and calmness.
“I’m just tryna make some money. You feel powerful, you feel big, and bad now. Does this make you feel good?”
People started handing him dollars left and right. It felt and looked like people throwing pennies into a wishing well, but the something good you were hoping for had just happened.
As a collective, I would like to believe we all came to the conclusion that everyone deserves to be heard, listened to allowed to express themselves, even if we have to sacrifice a little, allow them an indulgence. I pitched in a dollar.
As I left the train, I locked eyes with another passenger and he cackled “New York is crazy right?”I nodded. This could only happen here.
Walking away, part of me wished this was documented. Some viral footage I could share with friends, tweet, repost, text to people who weren’t there. Did that content deserve to be in the world? Would it be interpreted the same? Am I just contributing to the noise of the internet? I was only a witness because I decided not to wear headphones that day. Otherwise, I would have been just another pedestrian knee deep in my phone watching some viral youtube video, oblivious to my surroundings.
Our relationship with media is similar to that of medicine. It acts like dopamine satisfying our most primal urges of being engaged, interested and occupied. For all its redeeming qualities, consumption has the opposite effect of the medicine. Instead of enhancing, it distracts us.
Death, on Day 7
You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
This statement has so much meaning for so many different contexts. This wasn’t truer than 7 days into my headphone diet, hearing of Mac Miller’s death because of a drug overdose. Not being able to hear someone’s art as intimately because of some abstract personal commitment seems trivial at best. His music was the soundtrack to my adolescence. I distinctly remember annoyingly waking friends up to “Wake Up” on Saturday mornings and obnoxiously croaking out the lyrics. I whispered the hooks to early hits like “Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza” on the way home from high school, and to get a burst of energy before basketball practice.
Watching my Twitter timeline fill up with tweets from other artists sharing the sadness mixed with offline snapchats from friends smoking captioned “this ones for Mac” made me feel our listening experience was communal. Our relationship to the things we consume, watch, listen to, read is much deeper than surface level. Our consumption becomes an extension of ourselves, an abstraction of our psyche, and a conduit for our thoughts. At their core, those images, lyrics, and words help us express our feelings or emotions. They give us the courage to say things that would otherwise go unsaid, using the artist as a proxy for honesty while not taking responsibility for the emotion itself.
Never had I wanted to put in headphones so anxiously to hear his best songs, his greatest hits. But at that moment I think I learned that sometimes it’s more important to express, open up, and let things out rather than putting things in. (Even still I put them in that night.)
If there’s anything I learned it’s that sometimes it’s ok to unplug. Sometimes it’s ok to unwind. As much as we let things in its important to let things out.
There’s no nice bow for this, no proper act 3. I wish I could say I saw another viral moment or had some great epiphany and the media I consumed. At the very least I think I just had a more productive month. I don’t know if I could directly attribute that to lack of distraction but if the earbud fits. I wouldn’t dare categorize it as an addiction but something I heard once on a podcast summed it up perfectly.
“Ive got headphones now that have to be charged and if I find myself with my headphones not charged, it is anxiety inducing. It’s like not having a pack of cigarettes on you. I feel naked if I don’t have my headphones on me.” -Joel (99% Invisible podcast)
Lack of consumption shouldn’t make us feel anxious, but free. If we’re continually tethered to information, media or content with strings can we ever really be disconnected. At the very least I know what it felt like for a month and it’s nice to have no strings attached.