April 12, 2021

DERY | Wired In: The Campus Wide Implications of Choosing Headphones

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It was easy to think, at least when looking past the masks, that our campus wasn’t in a pandemic this past week. From the groups of students lounging on the Arts Quad to the bustling Collegetown streets, it feels as if this is the closest it’s been to “normal” since the start of COVID. And through the lively campus ambience, one seemingly minor observation stuck with me. As I took a seat on a bench before the Arts Quad, I couldn’t help but notice someone running past me listening to music without earbuds. AC/DC, a friend beside me pointed out. As he jogged onwards, running in-sync with the beat, I wondered why my knee-jerk response was, “Why not use earbuds?” 

My aversion to publicly playing music does not solely stem from a desire to be respectful of others in my surroundings. After all, the few seconds where a song is in earshot while passing someone by is hardly intrusive at all. There seems to have developed an unwritten expectation among students of the AirPods generation that under most circumstances, music should be consumed using headphones in public. 

Especially now when social gatherings are greatly limited, I can’t help but wonder if the compulsion to use headphones only reinforces our campus’ antisocial behavior during a pandemic. President Pollack’s 2019 message to “take off your headphones” appears to have worn off; it has become natural to pop in headphones and enclose ourselves in a sensory bubble as we commute. Wired into newer, noise-cancelling AirPods, Bose or Beats, the added insulation from external sound only makes the auditory bubbles in which we enclose ourselves thicker to penetrate — to the point where it takes waving your hand in front of a friend’s face to attract their attention.

Earlier this semester, in American Studies 1312: History of Rock Music, I learned that personal headphones were first endorsed by The Beatles in the 1960s, when music was becoming a more private experience. Since then, this technology has fostered an added sense of individuality among listeners. Studying in a group now means that each individual can explore their own tastes without having to accommodate others. However, having full autonomy in our music choices has also given way to potentially harmful social impacts. 

The idea that I can be safe from judgement because I’m using headphones has, in part, convinced me of the statement’s converse: without earbuds, I risk being judged by others. I’ve spoken to others who, like me, sometimes take one earbud out midsong to ensure that no music is leaking. This is not to say that this is a ubiquitous sentiment, but at least for many of us, the assurance in relying on a protective sound bubble has made us somewhat self-conscious about our music tastes in the eyes, or rather ears, of others. This concern, coupled with that of wanting to accommodate others in public, has established that listening to music should be a private experience unless in a social environment conducive to public streaming. 

However, over the past several weeks, I’ve understood how misleading the concern over not wearing earbuds truly is: I now associate these spring days — where students listen to music outside on speakers — with a more jovial, social atmosphere. Walking by and joining groups of people playing music aloud contributes to a sense of togetherness that can’t be achieved with earbuds. Indeed, the ways in which we each consume our music does have an impact on our campus environment as a whole. And though there is certainly a time for headphones, there should be more times when we ask each other about our music tastes, offer to share a playlist and most of all, disconnect our headphones altogether if we’re in the mood. Maybe when I start that ever-elusive jogging routine “next Monday,” I, too, will leave my headphones at home.

Roei Dery is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Monday this semester.