How I want my music

Posted Sep 07, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


It is no novel observation to point out how deeply technology is colonizing the farthest recesses of our lives. Part of the mythology of technology has always been that it will free us from onerous labor for more of the things we truly care about. Relieved of, say, the miserable duty of only talking on phones attached by cords to the wall, we’re supposed to spend oceans of free time with our loved ones in pacific pursuits. Instead of that we find ourselves texting during things that were sacrosanct only a few years ago: church, lunch conversations, small group meetings. A friend summarizes the colonization effort this way: you buy a cell phone for emergencies, but then you find yourself in aisle six calling home to ask if we’re out of tarragon.

Moderately depressed by these events, I found myself at a Gillian Welch concert recently. The crowd here in Boone, North Carolina, is musically appreciative enough that I saw no texting during the show. But I did notice an unanticipated effect of social media. After almost every song, audience members called out songs they wanted to hear. Now, I could be wrong, but I don’t think this used to happen at shows with headline events in auditoriums of thousands without heavy liquid encouragement (Lynard Skynard aside). The shouted suggestions became so noticeable that Welch apparently felt obliged to address them: “There’s so much feedback up here on stage that when you shout all I can hear is blah blah blah.” She put it with humor, but clearly wanted it to stop: “So you can say whatever you want.”

Is it too much for me to see a thread of causation here? We are now used to participating in our media, not just consuming it. We don’t just download songs, we mash them up into our own creations. We don’t just watch others’ videos, we make them on our phones. Media is changing, and part of that may be concert-going. Sure, we hadn’t seen Gillian Welch in Boone in eight years and most of us hadn’t heard her new album, but we still felt empowered to tell her what to play. I, for one, was glad she couldn’t hear us.

Playing music may be an alternative to technology. Albert Borgmann has long written of musical skill as a “focal practice,” one in which the good is intrinsic to the practice in a way that can’t be substituted. His signal example of a focal practice is the hearth—it means heat, but it also means cooking, storytelling, wisdom passed around, wood-gathering, god-worshipping. It opens up into further practices all of which come with difficulty but also pass on multi-generational good. To suggest any of this is replaced by central heat would be ridiculous—all the technology provides is warmth. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, speaking offhand about parenting in a technological age, also suggested music lessons. “I can’t make my kids turn the machines off,” he said, “but I can make them learn an instrument.” Maybe habits of attention have a future.

And maybe concerts have always been more participatory than I let on. Welch and her band mate David Rawlings concluded with a rousing version of “I’ll Fly Away,” with an entire auditorium singing along passionately. Think of the hours of focus required to make that moment happen, from Rawlings on guitar to audience members who know the third stanza. Will it still be possible in an age where we only get the music we ask for, on our schedule, subject to our whims without the hassle of parking, dealing with other people, and sitting there as someone else leads?

I have my doubts.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Eric Elnes 31 Jan
    Fun post, Jason. Actually, I can remember hearing people calling out song requests since my teens - which for me was in the age of 8-track tapes.

    Recently I attended a public concert sponsored by the city of Omaha in its grand Memorial Park. There, I saw a new (to me) engagement of audience feedback and social media. Before the concert began, on billboard-sized monitors on either side of the stage, they were projecting text messages from people in the audience. At first I smirked. Then I was mildly amused. Then I texted the message, "My husband is totally hot! - Melanie" My wife, Melanie, wasn't as amused as I was for some reason ...

    Perhaps one day they'll be using text messaging to send song requests to musicians during concerts. I doubt that would be annoying! But aggregate data of text requests might be an interesting piece of knowledge for a musician to have in their pocket for doing encores.

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