I had the misfortune of having to drive from Queens to Jersey City this afternoon in the midst of the weekend escape traffic, and while I was on West Houston Street by the Film Forum I had this peculiar impulse to roll down my windows, even though it was hot and muggy outside and my car’s air conditioning was working fine. My impulse had nothing to do wiht climate control, however. It had to do with the fact that I was listening to 60s French pop singer France Gall on my stereo, and I thought that if the people walking down the street could hear that, they might have a favorable impression of me. They might think I was someone. They might be impressed in my taste for obscurity and realize there was more going on than would meet the eye if they just happened to peer into my Toyota Corolla and see me sitting there without my carefully chosen personal soundtrack. I have to confess to this ridiculous impulse on the subway as well, when I’m listening to music on my headphones, and I see people on the train who I imagine might be surprised and impressed if they could hear what I had chosen to listen to.
It is this same impulse that leads people to outfit their cars with deafeningly loud stereos and bass boosters that rattle windows — the need to impose oneself on others in the form of some music you feel represents you. The car stereo is little more than a device for projecting your identity in sound to as far a radius as sound can travel. But the problem is that no music could do a fair job of representing you; it was made with no idea of your existence, in my case, typically before I was born. The music, as music, has no connection to what message I’d be trying to send when I start using it for social communication rather than personal pleasure. All that is significant is the cultural capital it embodies — the effort it would have taken to know about such music and obtain it — or the subculture membership it implies.
I was frustrated with my impulse because I usually resent people who try to establish their identities through ostentatious consumption, thinking its a phony way of being something, a way to pretend to something you are not. If you like some kind of music, you don’t need others to validate it or you, or serve as rapt audience to your alleged enjoyment of it. I didn’t roll down my window because I figured anyone I would want to impress would immediately see through my ruse, my self-advertisement, would immediately detect my poseurdom. I wouldn’t know how to live up to the implications of what I was advertising myself to be, and my real personality (supposing I have one) would come across as contradictory, false.
But I’m probably wrong about this. Anyone who would notice this music I had playing would probably be impressed in exactly the way I would hope, and if I could commit to conducting my entire life on that superficial level, of making outward displays (with the aid of some expert consumption/shopping choices) to suggest every trait I want others to think I have, I would continue to get along with these new friends perfectly well. Its more likely that I’m afraid my ruse will work too well, and I’ll be seduced into worrying more and more about the image I present to the world, and soon I’ll be spending hours in front of mirrors, and dropping a grand on louder car speakers, and a cooler car, for that matter, maybe a VW or a vintage Fiat or something. It would be a life with more pressure in some ways, but in other ways it would be simple, I wouldn’t have to be anything more than what was read on my surface — I wouldn’t have to justify the choices, whose attractiveness or purpose would be self-evident. I wouldn’t need any “depth.” People would be comfortable with me immediately, since it will be like they already know me at a glance.
After all, why do I think there is a deeper level to my listening to France Gall than the idea that it might impress people with a certain notion of who I am, what kind of eccentric tastes I have. In a society where social being is flattened out into the sum of one’s tastes and shopping choices, where consumerism is the only method by which to participate in a public sphere, I can be exactly what I calculate in my pretension; it’s not a pretense because there’s no way to listen to music that would not be a pretense, is there? Popular music exists to serve as counters, tools for marketing a certain version of yourself to others that they can recognize in an instant. “I can name that personality in five notes.”
Is it too cyncial to suspect that many lives are conducted in just this way, where their caluclated displays for attention are the ultimate essence of what they are, so there is no pretense no matter what posture they are assuming? No matter what message you try to send through conspicuous consumption (I’m into obscure French pop, I’m into heavy dub reggae, I smoke weed, I’m ironic, I’m very conscious of my sexuality) the real, overriding message is that you are dependent on the validation of others before you accept some notion as being really true about yourself. And this likely reassures everyone else who feels the same, who plays the same game. This is essentially David Reisman’s thesis in The Lonely Crowd, in which he describes America as a nation of “other-directed” conformists who are untethered, without a core of beliefs about themselves that come from somewhere other than the fashion mill, to anchor them.