Animating the Mundane: The Role of Music in Transportation
It’s the last step before leaving my house in the morning, the last act required to start the day. I find the right playlist on my phone and click play, music filtering into my ears near immediately and muffling the sound of the door slamming shut behind me. Seeking out the beat of whatever song Young the Giant’s crooning into my ear—it gets old when you talk to the sun / in a tongue understood by no one—I match the rhythm of my walk to the subway station, smiling as I pass my neighbor’s cat staring from her front stoop. For the next hour and a half, these headphones won’t leave my ears unless I’m asked for directions by the tourist or newcomer sitting next to me on the train. In another eight hours, I’ll be doing this all over again during my walk from work to the subway station as I head home for the night.
What is it about music that makes movement more bearable? Somehow it can be relied upon to take parts of our daily routines which are otherwise dreary or mundane and imbue them with some degree of pleasure, even joy. In my experience as a brown woman and a New Yorker, a sense of precarity often hangs over me when I’m in public. The inability to predict for sure what will happen on any given day can be stressful. Who knows if, over the course of this journey, the train will stall for half an hour or more, if two men on the other side of the subway car will erupt into a fight made possible by their tense proximity, if this is the day at last that the bomb in the station actually goes off before anyone learns of it.
I don’t mean to be morbid. But these are real concerns that we have as people in the 21st century, people who for the most part do not have control over our external environments. So this is perhaps, part of the answer—the music we listen to affords us some measure of control in how the world interacts with us when not much else is certain. And music and travel simply seem like a natural match; the sway of the train as it exits a tunnel, the car as it accelerates on a highway, the regular footfalls of a simple walk all can be made more beautiful and significant when added to music.
It’s why I’m not surprised when I look up from the book I’m reading as Fleetwood Mac sings another story in my ears—she rules her life like a fine skylark and when / the sky is starless—and see that most everyone in my car has their headphones in. It’s also why I can’t bring myself to be too annoyed when someone violates the generally accepted subway code of conduct and starts blasting a song from their phone; I know how bereft you can feel when you forget your headphones at home and have a several-hour commute ahead. I understand how music makes it all a little more bearable, the relief on the offender’s face a sharp contrast with the other passengers’ unvoiced exasperation.
My taste in music itself has in great part been shaped by motion, by public transportation and the act of commuting. The year I turned twelve was the first year I started taking the train to school, and the year I started exploring artists and genres of music on my own. I had just been admitted to a high school which, despite its prestige, was an hour and a half away from my house by subway. For the first month of seventh grade, my mother dutifully traveled with me to my new school and back so I could get acquainted with the winding, oft-delayed New York City subway system. Then she and my father decided I was ready to take the journey alone, and I was off, a bespectacled girl with a too-heavy backpack, taking on the city and all its accompanying grime and wonder.
An MP3 player (not an iPod, mind you—I had no apprehensions about what was attainable) morphed from the object of vaguely thought-out machinations to to a necessity. I had to have one, I assured my parents. After a little pleading, my father bought me a lime green device with buttons that clacked loudly when I tried to change the volume. It was not quite what I saw my classmates carrying around at school, but it could at least hold and play music, which was all I was really after.
And so began my gradual, sometimes rather grueling journey to accumulating music of my own taste. In the beginning, of course, “my taste” meant whatever my friends were into at the time—bizarrely, Christian rock bands being some of the most influential artists I can think of during this period. Bands like Relient K and Switchfoot sang with all the angst evoked by adolescence yet bypassed anything that would draw me out of my comfort zone. The dreamy electronic tones of Owl City were another frequent companion, saccharine, layered songs like “Hello Seattle” transporting me out of surroundings that still felt alien to me.
My MP3 player could only hold a very small amount of music, a conundrum which forced me to judge the staying quality of songs before I took on the task of downloading them to my music library. In order to gain a coveted spot in the aforementioned library, each song had to be carefully judged on questions such as whether I’d get sick of it in a couple of days, how long it was, and whether it conjured up an escapist fantasy when I listened to it that was powerful enough to overtake my reality.
I always had been an imaginative kid; in music I found a way to harness that imagination for ever-more detailed and prolonged fantasies. The several hours a day that my commute took were mine in a way other times were not, despite the fact that I was neither truly alone nor in control of anything other than myself in any physical capacity. Music made that blessed, contradictory solitude possible.
I understand there is a counterargument to be made against my earnest love for the way music works in tandem with the state of being in transit. Many might say that escapism like this is a way of disconnecting with our surroundings that does people a disservice. The notion that the entertainment our phones and other devices can readily provide us with is bad for our development and interactions with others is not new. And to some degree, these detractors have a point—we waste time often doing things on these devices which are not particularly good for us, which might actually make us feel worse about ourselves.
Yet I can’t help but believe it’s something compelling about our world that we are, so many of us, walking and riding and moving through the world accompanied by our own versions of beauty, our own personal relationships to art expanding with every second a song plays. I would argue that, far from music cutting us off from everything else, it enables awareness of a different vein, a mode of seeing which is, from the outset, tinged with a kind of rapture. I cannot remember a sunset seen from my train window that has not been made even lovelier by the delicate instrumentals of a raga, or the husky tones of Nina Simone. If music can give you companionship during these journeys between the places where real life occurs, if it can deliver you to the world ready think and speak and create alongside whatever is physically transporting you, then that is no small thing, I think. That is no empty offering.