The first time I ever walked down Amsterdam Avenue I passed two pedestrians in succession, about a half-block apart from each other, who were both singing at the top of their lungs. The first was a rather etiolated young man belting the first stanza of ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ by Elton John and Kiki Dee. Both the call and the response. The second was a well-swaddled older lady singing a gospel tune I didn’t recognise. When the woman walked by, she looked past me, trilling something about the Eternal Kingdom and the sumptuous glories to be found therein. In response my mouth said ‘fah’—an odd sound. I was startled, and my eyes felt dry in the frigid January air.
These two strange happy singers were practically my first impression of New York City. While much is made of its famous subway masturbators and obstreperous bagel vendors, it was, to my mind, these singers who most articulated the marvellous derangement of the big city.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the term ‘neurasthenia’ was used to describe the disorienting effect of living in big cities. Imagine being a simple goatherd, or whatever, named Jezrahiah or something, and then coming to the big city, and seeing a tram derail and topple over and make blue sparks fly into the astonished crowd of passersby. Imagine the uncanny grinding sound the tram would make, and the screams. It takes some getting used to, that kind of thing. Enough to make you yourself scream, though not necessarily sing. No one talks about neurasthenia anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten used to living in the metropolis. I don’t think I have. At the same time, I do not particularly enjoy fields, gullies, streams, etc, and do not think that I would feel more at home dwelling amidst some sacred grove or copse. The city is unfit for habitation, in the sense that it doesn’t fit us terribly well, but this is part of what’s so good about it. It doesn’t fit—ergo, anything might happen. Even tram derailments. Even screaming. Even public singing. You just never know. Fa fa la la. Tum tee tum tum. And so on.
My New Yorkers were both apparently of sound mind and did not seek remuneration for their efforts. This was about 10 years ago, I suppose, and in my home town of Melbourne full-throated public singing was rarely if ever seen, except as performed by the dread busker. The two singers sang for—what? For themselves? Not for each other it would seem, and yet there was I to bear witness. So.
It is evident, in fact, that such singing is not really for the public. It is simply in public. But if it wasn’t heard by the public then it wouldn’t be what it is. I don’t mean this in a ‘tree falling in the woods’ kind of way, just that public singing is defined by a particular arrangement of senders and receivers of vibrating air, positioned just so. It is singing which is marked by the fact that it is performed by a lone singer, in public, wherein said singer is heard by members of said public, but for whom the song is not ‘intended’ in any meaningful sense. Nor is the song concealed from them. Strangely, the public may actively listen to said song, or not, and it may not be clear to either party whether the act of hearing or being heard has even come to pass. Anyone can sing to themselves, by themselves. Or even under one’s breath, in public. Nothing remarkable about that. And anyone can busk, I suppose, if they so direct their energies—though I generally would prefer that they didn’t. But public singing is of a different order of activity. And so, perhaps, is the manner of listening which is thereby conjured into being. I hope I am being clear.
For Baudelaire, the most important feeling of his life was the frisson of being jostled in the crowd of a big city, and our contemporary equivalent may be allowing oneself to be sung at, but without really listening. Basically my sense is that once a city reaches a certain size it produces crowds gripped with such intensity of quivering that little sounds start falling out of pedestrians’ mouths, little fahs and hums and cha-cha-chas, and that this is entirely normal, and something we are likely to encounter much more of in the coming years. At the same time this is, as I have stated, not crowd singing, but simply isolated public singing. The crowd as such, as Baudelaire knew it, may be dead. The quivering has reached such a state that the individual singer has now been extricated from the crowd’s general hubbub, like particulate from homogenised milk, and is left to whimper and howl, both by themselves, and yet, confoundingly, without the recompense of a true and potentially restorative isolation.
We can imagine two poles of crowd-feeling today. On the one side an anxious feeling, a fear of something happening—something malevolent, unexpected, something banal and yet violent, something coming right at you, even if not targeted at you as such. You could be anybody in this circumstance. You don’t hear it coming, but you fancy that if you strain your ears you might get lucky and dodge it, whatever it might turn out to be. That is one pole. The other is the fear of nothing happening. This is the feeling of puny tedium one is sometimes struck by amidst a large crowd, when one is marching for a cause to which nobody seems to be paying attention, no matter the size of the crowd or the ostensible justice of said cause. This is the other pole. Between being targeted for something one has not done and ignored in spite of one’s best efforts. And at neither end of the spectrum does one feel a part of the mass, nor properly alone, nor even pleasantly or excitingly distracted. One just ambles along, caught between these two poles. A song drifts into your head: it is ‘Bat Macumba’ by Os Mutantes, for some reason. You don’t speak Brazilian Portuguese, but no matter, the strange chant comes tumbling out:
Whah whah whah whah whah whah (fuzzy guitar sounds).
You wonder whether you should buy a cape, like the fellow on the album cover. No—ridiculous. Contrived. Still, the thought lingers.
We are starting to see more and more public singing in Melbourne. Last week a man in his early 20s waltzed into the changing rooms at my gym, singing what was itself a very pretty air, in a kind of contra tenor. He projected at a steady volume and with quite good pitch. No headphones in, only half-making eye contact with us as he scrambled around for a locker. We also see a growth in karaoke bars, which is no coincidence, to my mind. Karaoke is a way of traversing the trauma of public singing. Your friends are there to listen, but maybe they are not listening—they have their own songs to worry about, after all. Maybe you are not really listening to yourself. Again, it is hard to say. The karaoke bar functions then as a kind of anti-laboratory, full of broken instruments and barely functioning receivers, where we can learn to calibrate our capacity for half-listening and for compromised performance. And we can take what we find in the lab and misinterpret what we’ve misheard, and go back out into the streets. You see how it works. You have not sung a good song. But you have sung, and so you might as well go on singing. The sound of the chant wavers and falls and is forgotten. But so is everything, so what of it, go on singing.