Music From Other Rooms

This morning I read an article on The New Yorker website that wasn’t actually about Trump. Rightly tagged “Rabbit Holes,” Jia Tolentino’s “The Overwhelming Emotion of Hearing Toto’s ‘Africa’ Remixed to Sound Like It’s Playing in an Empty Mall” sent me scurrying through YouTube in one of those oh-it-appears-people-are-doing-this-now moments that seem to be how cultural phenomena increasingly come into my awareness.

People are remixing music so that it sounds like it’s situated in various physical spaces. There’s a whole abandoned mall subgenre, which has the music playing over static images of shuttered stores in suburban shopping centers. If you’ve taken a walk through a mall recently, as I have, you’ve likely experienced retail ghost towns. The bustle of commerce that one came to expect from malls of the eighties and nineties is gone, leaving a last-person-on-earth ambience that is both unsettling and poignant. Recently, when I’ve visited the mall I most frequented as a teengager, Cascade Mall in Burlington, Washington, I’ve superimposed my memories on the bargain basement emptiness of it all.

It isn’t just that certain stores went belly-up or that teenagers today have migrated to more plugged in forms of entertainment, but that the whole way the world used to operate seems to be vanishing by the day. My girlfriend and I enjoy taking the Sunday New York Times to a coffee shop where we divvy up the sections while enjoying our coffee. A couple weeks ago she told me she’d heard we have about a decade before newsprint newspapers are gone.

This remix phenomena isn’t just about making it sound like the hot tracks of 1984 are playing in a mall. There’s a subgenre of music mixed to sound as if you’re hearing it from within a bathroom at a party. Another subgenre presents music heard as if it is playing in another room.

Beyond the nostalgia evoked with just the right reverb, I wonder if this remixing trend says something about what we want out of music in the age of virtual space. This isn’t about making music sound better. Rather, it seems to be an impulse to pull the streams down from the cloud and situate them in physical reality. It used to be that physical reality was where we experienced music–from speakers, from the open window of a moving car, in the trippy gatefold art of a prog rock concept album. Now that we’ve plugged in, with more listeners than ever getting their music from headphones and earbuds, music doesn’t seem to belong to any tangible place. It comes into our heads and never touches our hands. Maybe altering music to make it fit imaginary physical spaces makes us feel more present in the physical world, as well.

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