The past week saw people across the country joyfully honking, yelling and blasting music on the street. In a decentralized and spontaneous fashion, people cruised around their cities and congregated in urban centers, enthusiastically celebrating the end of an era in the atypically nice weather. Many of us in Ithaca witnessed (and did) this, too. The intersection of College Ave and Dryden Road was reappropriated as the new agora. As people drove by, they would slow down, turn up the volume of their music, say a few words and wave at the crowd, as if they were giving a speech at the center of the plaza.
These drivers permeated the street with a particular aura. Amplified by speakers, their music designated a particular feeling for everyone in close proximity. They participated in public discourse through the reverberation of the sound. While it was refreshing to immerse myself in the sheer exuberance in Collegetown, I must admit that my excitement waned pretty quickly when I realized that people didn’t know what else to queue for besides Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” and Mac Miller’s “Donald Trump.”
This anecdote illustrates how blasting music can be perceived as the manifestation of discourse power in a given space. The blasting of music can be understood as the broadcasting and the queueing of recorded songs. Traditionally, such an act is done at semi-public spaces like music venues, nightclubs, house parties and by stakeholders like DJs. In such spaces, recorded music broadcasted through the PA system facilitates the enclosing of a zone. The volume of the sound designates the borders of the zone, and the vibration of the sound transcends physical proximity in the zone into a shared sentiment among the crowd. With everyone listening to the same music and attempting to talk over the same booming sound, the specific choice of music fundamentally shapes what people talk and think about.
Given how intense this shared feeling can be, the blasting of music is often leveraged as a means to claim ownership of a given space. Think of the times when you walked into a frat party and really despised the brothers’ music taste. More likely than not, you probably decided not to comment on their music in their house. That’s how powerful music can be in claiming dominance over space with the help of loud enough speakers.
Nonetheless, such a power dynamic has a historically gendered bent rooted in the patriarchal hegemony. DJing was initially regarded as a marginalized and feminized act because it was fundamentally queer. Club culture’s queer roots are reflected in the rise of disco-wave in the 70s. Back then, playing and dancing along recorded music was perceived as neither masculine nor authentic. Note that masculinity and authenticity have long been associated with one another in our taste culture. By contrast, band performances were regarded as the epitome of live music aesthetics. It wasn’t until DJing was reappropriated as authentic with a newly defined live music aesthetics that the art of selecting and queuing recorded songs became relevant in the public sphere.
Such a fundamental shift coincided with the popularization of house music in the 80s, yet since then, club music has been reframed as a white boy’s culture. As white boys took over the clubs, and more crucially — the speakers, they began acting as the gatekeepers of our sound culture. With control over the speakers, these white male DJs essentially seized control over the discourse power by catering the dancefloors to their own kind. In her ethnographic study of the club culture in the UK in the 1990s, Sarah Thornton described the experience of young women in the scene, saying that they are “either a girl or culturally one of the boys.”
But besides semi-public spaces like the dancefloors, one can blast music in a public space, too. This was the case this past weekend in Ithaca and across numerous cities in the U.S. With the increased accessibility of urban public space for non-white and non-male folks, the hegemony of the blasting of music is being shaken up. Firstly, the rise of automobile culture afforded people the newfound autonomy to navigate the institutionalized space of urban centers. With the penetration of personal vehicles came the widespread ownership of speakers. Increasingly, more people could reclaim themselves as the center of the plaza with their blasting of music and participate in the public discourse.
This act of manifestation is further democratized with the affordability of portable speakers. Unlike a PA system that costs thousands of dollars, the price of a portable speaker can be as low as a hundred dollars. Yet still, these portable speakers are loud enough for the enclosing of a zone and the fostering a shared sentiment in the physical surrounding. This technological advancement helped the marginalized reclaim the public space and rewrite the narrative in the public sphere.
There’s only one caveat, however. Please be mindful when you blast music. This past Sunday, I received a noise complaint from my “very sleepy neighbor,” as said on a post-it note they left on my door. Amplifying your voice need not be obnoxious. Please don’t be like me.
Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.