I said to a friend of mine the other day that ours is a culture that delights in attacking sacred cows... provided the cows are dead. If the bovine bones are bleaching in the sun, so much the better. It's 2010 and we've all got blood in our eyes for the Watergate burglars and the Spanish Inquisition; but let there be so much as a faint moo of received opinion, the slightest warning tremor on that prime-time laugh track that tells us what's cool and what isn't, and most of us will run for the bushes like scared pups.
Take the dogma that loud sound is an act of rebellion. It's been a pet sacred cow of my aptly named Boomer generation — we're the ones who drowned out the Beatles, don't forget, and had our ears reamed out by The Who — and it's passed virtually unchallenged to our children and to their children as well. They might laugh at our "fossil rock," as in, "Who listens to that stuff anymore?" but they play their stuff just as loud as we played ours, if not out the window then directly into their wired ears. (As for those ears, one American child in eight has a noise-induced hearing loss. That's about five million kids.)
The worship of the loud transcends subcultures and politics as well as generations. It's as American as NASCAR, as cutting edge as Avatar, as up close and personal as someone shouting sweet nothings into your ear at the rocking corner bar. So-called conservative presidents declare war under the banner of "shock and awe"; so-called leftist intellectuals speak of the "transgressive" character of noise. (Not to worry if you ain't been to college; I have a definition handy: transgressive: adj. of or pertaining to a society in which everyone can have a nose ring and no one can have a public option for national health care.) Des Moines dentists mount 40K Harleys with boutique exhaust systems and become rebels without a cause.
If words like worship or sacred seem over-the-top to describe our love of loudness, I invite you to consider the ritual similarities between a mega-church service and a rock concert, between a pro sports event and a presidential nominating convention. Or, if naming the similarities is too easy, you could try telling me the differences. "Without the loudspeaker," Hitler said in 1938, "we never would have conquered Germany." True enough, though a more visionary fascist dictator would have said, "Give me a loudspeaker loud enough, and I'll conquer the world." Then his successors might have said, "Mission accomplished."
My argument here is not so much with loudness per se — while I'm writing this sentence, I'm playing a John Coltrane album, and I'm not playing it soft and low — as it is with the notion that loudness is some kind of subversive act. As I say in my new book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: "That revolutions are noisy — and necessary — I have no doubt. That noise in itself is revolutionary I don't buy."
I have a few reasons for refusing to make the purchase, or if you will, for refusing to step aside for the cow.
First of all, noise often has to do with overbearing power. It is a form of power and it signifies power. For centuries the loudest sounds in the Western world came from church bells and cannon. The implications have hardly changed in a world of jet engines and electric guitars. If the tattooed demigod on stage is in a good mood, he might hold out his microphone and allow the groundlings to sing along, but it's his priority, his noblesse oblige, his show.
Not only is loud sound distinguished by its power to drown out smaller sounds — the dune buggy trumps the desert bird every time — the ability to make loud sound often comes with money and political clout. Not infrequently it comes with a sizeable emission of carbon, too. No matter. The person who complains about the boom car or the ATV is branded an "elitist" — even if she lacks the dough to buy the boom car or the ATV, the airline ticket or the "offsets." A strange elitism, that. Apparently the putdown has the same effect as the loud noise that accompanies it: people lose their ability to hear themselves think.
If the powerful get to make a louder noise, the less powerful get to hear it. Who gets to live next to the interstate or beside the airport; who works in the sawmill or the coal mine? Who is most likely to go off to war and come home with a service-related hearing loss, as is the case for one out of every four U.S. troops returning from Iraq? Who gets to have a war and its deafening noise on their streets? Who gets to have a neighbor's argument coming through the thin bedroom wall? According to the last census, African-Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to live in noisy housing; Hispanic Americans are 1.5 times as likely. But they don't mind, right?
Perhaps the most ridiculous thing about the notion of loud sound as an act of radical defiance is the way it seduces people to replace resisting oppression with blowing off steam. Especially if they can be persuaded to buy something. You're such a rebel, you are, and I'm going to tell you (and sell you) all the gear you need to be even more rebellious. As your Uncle Morty might have put it, if you had an Uncle Morty: "With such rebels, I should need sheep?"
No doubt loudness has a part to play in protest. When James Brown said to "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" he was telling a truth we still need to hear. But in a society that is already loud and loves to be loud — and even uses loudness to drown out voices of dissent — quiet determination may speak with greater force.
In 1955 an African-American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man who demanded it of her. Those who witnessed her refusal reported that she spoke at a volume barely above a whisper. They were able to hear her only because, in that tense moment, they could have heard a pin drop.
Ten years later, in 1965, the Beatles would be drowned out by their Shea Stadium fans. In another decade plus a year, in 1976, rock struck back when The Who set a record for the loudest rock concert (since broken), achieving 126 decibels at 32 meters from the stage, roughly the equivalent of a civil defense siren at 100 feet. Jump another decade and another few years to 1989, and you have the Supreme Court case Ward v. Rock Against Racism, which had to do with electronic amplification systems and their well-known effectiveness in combating racism.
In 2003, almost half a century after 1955, the BBC would report that U.S. interrogators were torturing Iraqi prisoners by blasting Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and Barney the Purple Dinosaur's "I Love You" theme song into their darkened cells.
So much sound and fury in such a relatively few