Listen Like You Mean It

Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

If I could pick one attitude of mine that would look sweet on a T-shirt or tattoo, possibly in metal font, it would be "Death to background music."

I have noticed a trend among my friends and acquaintances; even the most obsessed among them are listening to less music. One may assume this is a frightening pattern, but it speaks to a positive mentality. People are taking command over their experience by listening deliberately rather than constantly surrounding themselves with music. As an ex-con with an uncanny ability to turn flower pots into adorable Halloween witch cauldrons once said, "It's a good thing."

The decrease in the quantity of music absorbed is partly a reaction to the onslaught of music we are exposed to in our daily lives. Try to list every song you heard today - on the car radio, on TV, on store PAs whilst shopping, on your iPod, on the computer, et cetera. If you can rattle off the entire playlist, you either had a boring day or you might have autism. Inversely, you can most likely name the last song you listened to on purpose.

This brings up the principle - and frequent fighting point among couples - of "hear" versus "listen." We hear music constantly, but we only listen when we actively engage. Millions of dollars are made each year on music that is meant to be heard and not listened to, from the smoov-jazz on the Weather Channel to the inoffensively familiar tunes lulling customers at Shop 'N Save. A common impulse is to replace "their" music with "your" music, as if spinning Refused while sweeping your kitchen is going to take the power back.

Not all situations require a soundtrack. Chances are, if you put on music while doing any activity more intense than traffic-free highway driving, you are not proving your love of music, but your fear of silence. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman says the sign of a good couple is their ability to shut up around each other? The same is true with your relationship to music. If you truly love Foo Fighters, then you will know that "Everlong" should not be zoned out to while checking Craigslist for graphic design gigs. It deserves better. It demands air drums.

What I ask of you is not easy. Active listening is intense. It requires a dedication of time and a control of one's environment, whether through headphones or an optimized listening room or a decent car stereo. And it requires attention, which can be hard when dealing with a non-visual medium. I tend to prefer listening in the dark or with my eyes closed. If I'm getting extremely serious, I take off my glasses. When executed properly, listening becomes meditative, even exhausting. I listened to "The Galaxist" by Deerhoof on headphones last night, and afterwards I wanted to ask drummer Greg Saunier "Was it good for you, too?"

In last week's edition of Better Living Through Music, I wrote to the musicians out there, urging them to "own" their music, to take responsibility for and be unapologetic about every aspect of their work. Now I elevate my soap box to the general population, to all ye who listen. If music is important to you, important enough to call it yours, important enough to infiltrate your lifestyle, important enough to take time out of your day to read a post on your local alt-weekly's blog all the way into the last paragraph, then listen like you mean it.

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