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Friday, February 27, 2004
I had a weird trip to work this morning. The train was running slow and I got out late, but the train was right in the station when I got there, so it was like a straight line from the apartment down the street into the subway. I didn't even stop at a stoplight, I think. I rushed into the train car, sat down in one of those corner seats wedged up against a window, and listened to Black Box Recorder's The Facts of Life.

It's one of my favorite albums. I first got it in London, just when the title track was getting big (or big for a track like that, anyway, but they were on TOTP), and really loved it then. Sometimes song associations fade, but even today, four years later, when I'm listening to "The English Motorway System," it just feels like I'm on the top deck of a bus on a rainy London day, which was where I first heard the song. It's a very specific feeling and I guess I can't really describe it any better than that, but it feels just sort of empty and misty and chilly, slow-moving and peaceful.

At any rate, I ended up nodding off. Usually when I do this on my morning commute, the station stops are jarring enough and the other passengers are loud and jostling enough that I don't really get more than a few minutes' sleep at a time. But this time, either because of my tardiness or the vagaries of the MTA scheduling system, there were very few people in the train; I'd say the seats were only about half-full. The announcements were quiet, and there were some extended station stops that were similarly muted.

And so I ended up dozing lightly for pretty much the entire half-hour trip. I don't know what was going on--I got a decent 7 hours of sleep last night, but I guess it was just one of those things. I would come up briefly and be surprised either by the hat I was holding or the thought that I had missed my station, but it was something about that particular set of circumstances that pretty much put me under for the duration.

In large part, I think it was because of the music. It was a very odd sensation, because as I say, I was a lot more asleep than I'd usually be, but I was drifting in and out. I suppose it felt dreamy, like a walking dream, except that instead of my brain producing dreams, my brain was producing the music I was listening to, or so it felt like. Or maybe it was more that the music was clamping down the dreams. But no, that's not it--it really seemed like the music itself was what I was dreaming.

Probably that's because of the headphones. Headphones are wonderful things, aren't they? So warm and enveloping. I get the biggest pair I can find. I actually used to have a lot of problems with loud noises on the subway until I discovered that as long as I'm listening to music all the time it's not a problem. I guess you could say that it's a technique of distancing yourself from other people, but fuck it, it's New York: if I didn't distance myself from other people, I'd go crazy.

I have a strange weakness for images of headphones in pop music, especially big headphones. The thing that springs to mind first is the cover of the Craig David album, but there's also the somewhat less ideal example of the Papa Roach album. And, of course, there's the wonderful Bjork song "Headphones." These headphone images all seem to present a particular image: tranquility, coolness, smoothness; beatitude, really, is what I feel they represent. (The chorus of the Bjork song, for instance, goes "my headphones / they saved my life / your tape / it lulled me to sleep.") You almost never see images of sullen teens retreating into their headphones in pop music; when these creatures do appear, they're not blaring music against the world, but instead, the headphones seem to act almost like a magic amulet, making them smooth, gliding through the problems of life without turning their head to notice. Controlling the soundtrack to your own life allows you to control yourself, and teens have a problem controlling themselves. (So do I, but that's another post entirely.) But more importantly, someone listening to music on headphones, especially with their eyes closed, seems to be meditating. They are quietly reflecting on the music and are at peace.

The problem with this image, of course, is that most people are not listening to headphones in environments that can properly be called peaceful. Indeed, in the especial case of the NYC public transport system, you really can't listen to anything peaceful, because you won't be able to hear it. There's a decent number of albums--Mogwai, spoken word, classical--that I just can't listen to on the subway because I just won't be able to hear most of it. And so, unless you have some of those noise-canceling headsets, you end up blasting somewhat or very loud music at full volume, not necessarily to avoid the outside world as to hear what you're listening to.

Not that this is a bad thing all the time. There's something very appealing about the idea of a very loud and very contained thing; it reminds me of the image of an entire miniature planet contained within a jewelry box. It's there, and everything's proceeding as normal, and if you're inside the jewelry box, it all seems very nice, and if you're outside the jewelry box, it doesn't seem like anything's there. But once you open it...

The Black Box Recorder album is not a loud album, but it's not a peaceful album, either. There's not many distorted guitars, the synth lines are pretty clean (mostly basslines and strings, actually), and the drums tend to be 808 pops and snaps and ride tinkles, all very clean and soft, but not actually quiet, per se. I could hear it just fine; indeed, as I say, it sort of drowned else everything out. But it felt like it shouldn't have. And maybe that's why everything felt so weird. If I'm listening to Metallica, well of course I can't hear what else is going on. But if someone's whispering in my ear and a tremeloed guitar is chiming and there are pretty backing vocals, why shouldn't that blend in with everything else? But it doesn't, and all that space feels like a dream, like something I can walk around in.

And that's what that album is to me. That and the top deck of a London bus.