Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”
This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim Anderson, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.
Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.
Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.
The day after, I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light, White Heat, The Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”
This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy. Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.
Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.
As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.
Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well. Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.
However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.
All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once. Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).
Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.
Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.
Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono
Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at email@example.com.
When I heard of people flocking to recreate “Gatsby Dress” costumes for Halloween 2013, I couldn’t help but ponder the seemingly-perpetual cultural allure of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, particularly its latest cinematic incarnation in spectacular Baz Luhrmann-style. More than a little of the momentum of the recent revival, however, had everything to do with the film’s soundtrack–executive produced by Jay-Z (who also executive produced the film)–that drew heavily on hip-hop. This sonic move was not without controversy, however, sparking intense debate when the film was released in May 2013. Take this line from Vice Magazine’s UK music blog Noisey (from a post snarkily entitled “Who Let The Great Gatsby Soundtrack Happen?”) that describes Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album, from which many of the film’s songs are taken, as “a record that couldn’t be further removed from West Egg than a pauper trying to gain access to a Gatsby soiree.” This statement reveals more about this particular listener than it does about either the record or the film, which are intimately connected through the labor of Jay-Z and what I theorize here as a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism.”
I’ll admit that when I was first hip to The Great Gatsby my junior year of high school, I thought it was boring and couldn’t stand Tom or Daisy Buchanan or their rich white folk problems. I rooted for Jay Gatsby but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he was so sprung over Daisy, who wanted her daughter to be a “beautiful little fool” (17). But as I got older, I found myself returning to the novel time and time again, coming back to Gatsby like a forlorn lover and reconsidering what Jay Gatsby’s character represents: unrequited love, American idealism, (capitalistic) hustle, and (white) masculine performance. However, I’ve always been part of the camp that secretly hoped Gatsby was a black man passing for white, yearning for a life – and a woman – out of his grasp no matter how much “new money” he acquired.
It was not until Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Gatsby that I realized how hip (hop) Gatsby really could be.
Luhrmann’s modernization of classic literary texts is not new; Romeo + Juliet (1996) got me through high school readings of Shakespeare’s play in ways Sparknotes could not. While Shakespeare’s words remained intact, the scenery and aura of the play burst to life on the big screen. Luhrmann uses in that film sonic cues of contemporary (youth) popular culture to make Shakespeare’s characters relatable. Verona is a hip, urban hub of violence that vibrates to grunge and pop artists such as Garbage, Everclear, and Quindon Tarver instead of mandolins and harps. The grittiness of grunge rock signifies the grittiness of Verona street life while Quindon Tarver’s angelic voice signifies the innocence and vulnerability of (first) love.
But Luhrmann’s Gatsby takes it up a notch, looking to hip hop culture as a bridge between the roar of the 1920s and the noise of the present. Aside from the literal presence of hip hop sound – mostly snippets from Jay-Z and West’s Watch the Throne – the materiality of hip hop sound also serves to update the Gatsby narrative. Consider how Gatsby’s parties are loud and bass-filled with a live jazz band. The loudness of the party and “surround sound” stereo sound of the film amplifies the vibrancy of the Jazz era while drawing in the audience with a contemporary interpretation of live parties seen and heard in contemporary hip hop culture. “The question for me in approaching Gatsby was how to elicit from our audience the same level of excitement and pop cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience?” Luhrmann told Rolling Stone. “And in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”
The film itself is stunning: vividly colored with panoramas and ground shots of New York City, Luhrmann’s film draws in an audience possibly unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s novel. The film utilizes the more traditional jazz aesthetic that captures the novel’s initial element, but invokes hip hop to span a generational divide and update the (black) cool factor of the film. Indeed, both jazz and hip hop best signify black cool and its commodification into mainstream white America. For example, Norman Mailer’s discussion of the white hipster and Jazz aficionado as a “white Negro” is also tantalizingly useful in thinking of Gatsby as a black man passing for white. His affinity for Jazz and throwing jazzy parties incites the probability of Gatsby’s racial and social background. The film uses sound to create a hybrid of timeless black cool, while highlighting the presence of African Americans’ contributions to American culture. Hip hop’s birthplace and the portal for many immigrants into America, New York is arguably America’s most mythological city, grounded in both white and African American culture memory as such. Jay-Z’s own mythic rise to fame, wealth, and power in New York City–exemplified in some lines from 2009′s “Empire State of Mind,” “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa/ Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever/ I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere”– grounds the film’s rags-to-riches mystique.
In addition to such extradiegetic associations, the film’s soundscape itself enthralls, with brassy, lively instrumented notes of jazz – which carried the sonic narrative of the 1920s – sounds of the hustle and bustle of urban spaces, particularly New York City, and hip hop. The film’s soundscape presents a hybrid of sonic black identities – jazz and hip hop – and uses their blended aesthetics to speak to the continued framework of black popular culture as a gauge of Americanism. In other words, the marginalized perspective is used to decide whether or not something is authentically American or not.
Hip hop aesthetics bridge old New York with the current New York as a foundation of Americanness. Gatsby bridges the old adage of New York as a space of opportunity with the familiar New York adage that Harlem-born and Mt.-Vernon-raised P. Diddy drops in Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,”a call back to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that is also echoed by Jay-Z that forms a foundational trope of the film and the novel. A particular striking example of the merging of these adages is a scene in the novel where Nick and Gatsby are on their way to the city. They pass a car with black passengers and a white chauffeur:
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “Anything at all” (69).
While the novel does not describe a sonic accompaniment to Carraway’s observation of the black folks in the limousine, there is an inherent understanding of the “modish” fashion of the black folks as jazzy, as cool. In the film, there is an audible sound associated with the black folks. They are sipping champagne and listening to Watch the Throne. Although visibly symbolic of the 1920s – dressed in zoot suits and flapper dresses – the aural blackness associated with the scene suggests a merger of jazz and hip hop cool and cosmopolitanism.
In order to understand how hip hop updates the struggle for realness, entitlement, and respectability in the Gatsby film, it is important to return to the major sonic influence of the literal hip hop sound in the film: Jay-Z and Watch the Throne. Jay-Z’s work on the album raises questions of how hip hop culture impacts not only the American dream but the aspirations of mogul-dom seen and heard in the film and novel. Christopher Holmes Smith’s discussion of hip hop moguls in Social Text (Winter 2003) is particularly useful in teasing out the implications behind the hip hop mogul and such figures’ social-cultural responsibility to their respective communities. Holmes Smith argues:
The hip-hop mogul bears the stamp of American tradition, since the figure is typically male, entrepreneurial, and prestigious both in cultural influence and wealth. The hip-hop mogul is an icon, therefore, of mainstream power and consequently occupies a position of inclusion within many of the nation’s elite social networks and cosmopolitan cultural formations (69).
Jay-Z’s status as a hip hop mogul – serving both as a creative talent and corporate backer – lends credence to thinking about hip hop as a space of entitlement and a site of struggle to attain that entitlement. It is from this perspective that I think of Gatsby as a hip hop figure/mogul: his working class background, hyper-performance of white privilege, materialistic pursuit of wealth for visibility, and desperate need for approval as “authentic.” To borrow from rapper Drake, Gatsby “just wanna be successful.”
Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion of Jay-Z as a hip hop cosmopolitan figure in Looking for Leroy (2013) further enables an understanding of how Jay-Z lends his (sonic) hip hop cosmopolitanism to sonically navigate between hip hop’s working class aesthetics and his own sense of entitlement because of the way he mobilized those working class experiences to become wealthy. While the film does have performances by artists who are not considered hip hop – i.e. Lana Del Rey, Jack White, and Florence+the Machine – Jay-Z’s use of his own raps, including tracks from the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne suggests a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism” complements any sense of the film as a case study of white entitlement. Tracks like “100$ bill,” “No Church in the Wild,” and “Who Can Stop Me” both prop up and tear down Luhrmann’s visual rendition of Fitzgerald’s critique of the uppercrust of America as corruptibly entitled.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is an intriguing and useful tool through which to analyze the (in)consistencies of race and cultural authenticity in the United States. Both jazz and hip hop exist in the interstitial spaces that lie between black cultural expression and white entitlement to those expressions. Luhrmann uses hip hop’s sonic and cultural aesthetics to pump up the capitalistic and all-American narrative of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative in Gatsby by also declaring, “get yours by any means necessary.”
Featured Image adapted from Flickr User kata rokkar
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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“The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the Soundtrack of Desire“– Marcia Dawkins
“It’s a city, not a cemetery. You can’t tell everybody to go around wearing earplugs.”
In 1905, a New York Times article declared New York City “the noisiest city on Earth.” More than a century later—this summer, to be exact—The New York Times ran a series on noise in New York City titled “What? The Long War on Loud” that proved that this city is still trying to figure out its relationship to sound. (One of the gems of that series? “New York’s War on Noise” timeline.) As a displaced New Yorker, some of my most vivid memories of the city are aural. Although New York City isn’t the only loud city out there, there are many reasons it’s called “The City That Never Sleeps”—and sound has a lot to do with it, depending on which neighborhood you call home.
Now you can see what neighborhoods are allegedly noisiest, and where all that noise comes from. Brooklyn designer Karl Sluis created the 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaints maps (click for full image), in which Sluis correlated the data on 311 noise complaints made during the year 2012 (40, 412 complaints, to be exact) that he obtained from the NYC Open Source site with Manhattan’s geographical coordinates. He used circles of various sizes to a) create an aural tracing of the island of Manhattan, sitting in a sea of turquoise blue b) showcase the number of complaints in an area. The bigger the circle, the larger the number of complaints.
The maps Sluis has created are helpful for visualizing the complaints on a broad scale, but they paint an incomplete picture of what noise means in New York City. The demographics of each neighborhood are absent from each map, a slight that can perhaps be traced to the 311 data available, but in order to better understand how New Yorkers define “noise” those stats must be included. Both Sluis and John Metcalfe from The Atlantic Cities discuss notable findings, but neither takes into account the fact that some of the areas with a higher concentration of noise complaints are not just densely populated but densely populated with racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, comparing the maps’ noisy hotspots to a map of Manhattan racial demographics reveal how urban racial dynamics intersect with ideas about sound and power: who can make sound, who must be chastised for making noise, who can complain and whose complaints are actually being heard.
Mapping noise complaints gives a spatial dimension to noise, and it renders noise palpable, in a way. Sluis points out, “Noise complaints reveal the concentration of activity in the city as well as many smaller stories, such as the construction of the Second Avenue subway line, idling buses on the Upper East Side, and the homes of the loudest dogs (or the least patient neighbors).” He reminds us that the data comes from complaints and not necessarily decibels; in other words, it represents local ideas of what counts as sound and what counts as noise.
While Metcalfe correctly describes the thousands of 311 complaints about noise from 2012 as “the entire year’s expression of mass annoyance,” Sluis’s map does not go far enough toward figuring out whose annoyance, exactly. We must remember that annoyance oftentimes stems not just from physical reactions to noise but rather one’s perceptions about noise, what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman deems “the listening ear.” How we hear others, Stoever-Ackerman argues, is not as natural as it seems. For example, whom we deem as noisy may stem from our community, our parents, and/or social conditioning. Accounting for race/ethnicity in noise maps will show how the listening ear conditions neighbors to categorize and react to certain sounds.
For the purpose of this analytic exercise, I compared Sluis’s maps and the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s 2010 map of block-by-block demographic changes in New York City, in order to illustrate how population density and racial/ethnic demographics play a role in concentrated pockets of noise complaints. Drawn from 2010 census data, the CUNY map clearly delineates neighborhoods and color-codes the groups in each neighborhood per block: blue for whites, green for Latino, orange for black, purple for Asian, and grey for “Other.” Although the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s maps cannot be superimposed on Sluis’s maps, they help give a general idea as to where neighborhoods are located in addition to racial demographics.
From the maps illustrating changing race/ethnicity patterns, I gathered what neighborhoods were predominantly white (West Village, Lincoln Square, Yorkville, Upper West Side), predominantly Latino (Washington Heights, East Harlem) predominantly black (Central Harlem, parts of Hamilton Heights), and predominantly Asian (Chinatown, blocks of the Lower East Side). When one compares Sluis’s overall noise map of Manhattan to the racial demographic maps of Manhattan, what stands out is that the major circles of noise complaints are also places where there are different racial and ethnic groups mingling (for example, Times Square) or places that are populated by mostly minorities (Hamilton Heights). Whereas Sluis flattens out the noise complaints, demographic stats point to the racial/ethnic contours of each neighborhood. Sluis’s maps focus on number of complaints; unfortunately this assumes everyone complaining is the same and that everyone making the noise is the same—a level aural playing field if you will. Bringing demographics into the equation underscores how not all complainers are equal and how not all complaints carry the same heft.
The city may be noisy, but “noisy” is relative. Sluis’s map shows some predictably noisy areas for those of us familiar with Manhattan’s soundscape (Union Square, Times Square) but it also draws attention to other areas not as predictable in the mainstream imagination (East Harlem South, Hamilton Heights). However, the maps by the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center help us better understand the context for the high or low number of complaints in certain areas. For example, one of the biggest circles on Sluis’s general map of Manhattan is located in the Hamilton Heights/Washington Heights area; the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s map of Manhattan above 110th Street show that these areas are densely populated by blacks and Latinos/as. This is key information because it reminds viewers that this neighborhood is a lot more ethnically diverse than other neighborhoods with a smaller number of complaints. It brings to mind: what role does race play in these complaints, in terms of those who complain and those who are the focus of the complaints? Although more people might mean more complaints, the prevalence of complaints like “loud talk” in East Harlem (Spanish Harlem) are nevertheless connected racialized ideas about people of color being “loud.” This doesn’t assume that the people complaining are white, but that they are complaining about groups that are characterized as loud, noisy, rowdy.
These noise maps, when put into conversation with demographic data, also indicate what areas are priorities in urban planning—the sounds of gentrification. The visualizations of the complaints by section (under the main map), combined with CUNY’s maps, are even more telling because they break down the number of complaints by category. The aforementioned northern tip of Manhattan, for example, is also where many of the complaints are concentrated. At a glance, loud parties, loud people, and loud car stereos seem to be the major complaints in those areas, according to Sluis’s visualizations. Meanwhile, noises of “urban growth,” such as construction and jackhammers, are less prevalent in these areas, whereas they are more prevalent below Central Park North, in now mostly-white neighborhoods.
Sluis’s maps of the 311 noise complaints data allow readers to see differences in terms of neighborhoods: who complains the most? what do they complain about? However, one thing to keep in mind is that first question: who makes the complaints. This is where the data falls short. Can it be assumed that those who are calling about the noise are mostly people who live in the neighborhood? Are Upper Manhattan neighbors less or more tolerant of noise? The answers to these questions, although they’re not found in Sluis’s map, point to how ideas of who is noisy or who can make noise are at play here.
I do not mean to downplay the usefulness of Sluis’s map. I instead call for the necessary addition of key missing factors to future noise maps in order to give us a more complex picture of noise complaints in Manhattan and elsewhere. Although it may not be possible to gather who the 311 callers are, including factors such as race and class may lead to very different noise maps. For example, what would a noise map of Manhattan look like if researchers brought income into the equation? Income inequality, especially in Manhattan where that imbalance is starkly on display, matters for the purpose of sound mapping. The more affluent neighborhoods are also the ones with less complaints and are the ones that are mostly inhabited by whites. Wealthier communities are more spread out and have more ability to couch themselves from noise, not to mention that it probably takes fewer complaints to get a response.
Gentrification is another factor: what kind of analysis could we do if we considered what neighborhoods have been gentrified in the past ten years? It is possible that as whites move into neighborhoods where people of color have historically lived, suddenly they find them noisy—hence, complaints. It is fitting to consider, for example, the tension between an established group of drummers in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and the inhabitants of a new highrise (characterized as “young white professionals”) who wanted the 30-years and running drum circle shut down, as reported in The New York Times in 2008. Moreover, if we accounted for the history of zoning in the neighborhoods that have the most or the least complaints it would add another layer of analysis to the data. Are some of these neighborhoods used as entertainment zones, for example? Is it easier to open up bars there than elsewhere in the city?
With these questions in mind, the maps go from beautiful renditions of data, to opening up a bigger conversation about the arbitrariness of noise. The demographical and sociological context of these noise complaints must accompany the raw data, especially when it comes to sound. The analysis also points to the source of the data: 311 calls. I wonder if this is the only way that people in Manhattan (and New York City at large) are dealing with noise. I’m sure that after a century of being “the noisiest city on Earth,” folks have gotten creative about it.
Featured image: ” Stranger 10/100 Johano” by Flickr user MichaelTapp, CC BY-ND 2.0
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The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant