At the same time as I have been researching personal soundscape management methods (read: listening via headphones) the term "neoliberal" has found its way into my attempts to explain why I care so much about how people listen.
Britannica.com defines "neoliberalism" as an ideological model of economic and social relations that are founded upon free-market competition. This should ring that grade 10 civics bell, transporting you back to the lesson on laissez-faire economics. Now unlike my hero—and forever president—Jed Bartlet, I am not a Nobel Laureate in Economics, so my understandings of the field come from being a life-long participant in late stage capitalism and watching YouTube videos. This one from BBC illustrates how neoliberal practices of privatization and individual freedom are not just part of an economic model, but have been absorbed into the cultural value system of social behaviour. This is where I find myself able to grasp neoliberalism as a concept, the socio-cultural prizing of individuality, privacy, and consumption-driven solutions to problems.
If we think of neoliberalism as a brand, it would have a very clear "bootstraps"-style messaging; one which proposes individual solutions to larger social problems. In other words, if you are bothered by something, it's your responsibility to change your relationship to it—usually by dancing with sweet lady capitalism and buying something.
Mack Hagood's latest book Hush (2019) speaks directly to the idea of the neoliberal self as one which enacts reflexive and rational control as mediated by headphones (pp 187-94). He provides a deft analysis of Bose's the marketing campaigns for their QuietComfort Noise Cancelling Headphones, and proposes they reflect of a culture of fear and desire for control. The earliest reviews and advertisements targeted the traveller demographic and touted the headphones' ability to make air travel more bearable through the acoustic magic of phase cancellation. With this device, users could effectively tune out the din of an airport and exercise control over their personal soundscape. In this choice, they are acknowledging their regulated movement (read: lack of freedom) within the space of the airport/airplane, and attempting to carve out their own acoustic enclave. He writes:
[The] very prescence of a technological 'solution' to this problem of conflicting freedoms reinforces the essential neoliberal belief that problems must be solved individually and within the market rather than addressed as systemic issues: individual consumption, rather than collective action is the site of social agency. (pp. 189)
Sophie Arkett (Sounds Like City, 2004), acknowledged the spatiotemporal compression (Bull 2000) that wearing headphones offer the everyday user:
The personal stereo offers perhaps the best example of a growing schism between what we see and what we hear. It might be used to transcend a repetitive journey to work, as a way to explore uncharted sonic terrain, or as a way of superimposing an often faster beat on our own internal heartbeat. Whatever the reason, listening to music directly fed into the ears creates the illusion of enlarging our own physical scope. (pp 164)
The creation of private sonic enclaves is almost a ubiquitous practice for city-dwellers who can afford smartphones and mp3 players—remember, privacy/control/freedom is expensive. By allowing people to curate the soundtrack to their lives and live out a cinematic narrative in which they are the star. Alternatively, this music could be used to provide comfort and companionship to the listener as they go about their daily life.
In Sounding Out the City (2000) Michael Bull attends to similar themes, but where Arkett takes the personal stereo to be a tool of creating personal acoustic space (or the illusion thereof), Bull is concerned “forms of social asymmetry embedded in habitual everyday behaviour form a constituent part of users’ everyday lives,” (195) as observed through personal stereo use. Both, however, concern themselves with the evolving definitions of public and private space. Bull states:
The discounting of the public nature of the urban into a reconfigured personalized private in the public does not merely relate to issues of space–time compression (Harvey 1996) but rather to a re-embedding of space and time whereby everyday experience is reconfigured with a personalized meaning. (194)
This supports the critique of the neoliberal urban experience as one in an ever-evolving state of individualist practices to contemporary problems.
Extrapolating from Hagood's thesis, I was curious if trends in music production revealed any correlation with neoliberal ideology. Using the music of Fall Out Boy (From here: FoB), I am conducting a content analysis of their seven studio albums. The research questions I am seeking to answer are:
-How has the music production of FoB changed over their career? How has their sound changed?
-What (if any) music production techniques are used to symbolize the concepts of freedom, control, and market participation?
-How has the ideology associated with the band changed, and what about its relationship to the genres of punk, emo, pop punk, and electronic rock?
Just like I left you hanging on my last post, I'm doing a To Be Continued moment here. I promise that next time there will be WAAAAY more angsty lyrical content in the next post. Also, cheers to those who immediately got the title reference. Y'all are the real MVPs.
–Arkett, S. (2004) “Sounds Like City” in Theory, Culture & Society (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 21(1): 159–168
–Barns, S. (2014) “Sounds Different: Listening to the Proliferating Spaces of Technological Modernity in the City”
–Bull, M. (2000) Sounding out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Materializing Culture). Berg Publishers.
–Droumeva, M. “Sound Stories: A context-based study of everyday listening to augmented soundscapes”
–Hagood, M. (2019) Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control. Durham: Duke University Press.
–Thibaud, J-P. (2003) “The Sonic Composition of the City.” The Auditory Culture Reader.