Tsskk Tsskk… Why Do Kids Play Music on Buses?

Interesting piece yesterday looking at why kids might play their crappy, tinny music through their stupid phones when on buses on trains. And why good, responsible adults might find their blood boiling when it happens.

With mobile phones in many a teenager’s pocket, the rise of sodcasting – best described as playing music through a phone in public – has created a noisy problem for a lot of commuters.

“All you can hear is ‘dush, dush, dush, dush’. It’s irritating. So many times I end up with a headache,” says Tracey King, who has signed up to the Shhh! Scheme set up by bus company Arriva Yorkshire to stop the noise on their services.

While I sympathise with Tracey, I would think it highly unlikely that the noise is actually going to give her a headache. Irritating it might be, but the volume that phones pump out is hardly going to damage eardrums.

“As teenagers, they don’t seem to have the capability to think about others. I have heard older women turning round and saying ‘will you turn that down?’ and sometimes they will… and other times I’ve heard them with abuse and swearing at other people.”

This is a classic case of having to deal with ‘the other’ – and is therefore something that my thoughts in the book should be applicable to. So what’s going on here? Why do people play music like this, and why do other people find it so irritating?

Firstly, the music. Some students who were interviewed for the piece didn’t think that playing music was antisocial, just that the bus was too quiet and they wanted something to listen to. However, a sociologist sees it being more about marking out ownership of space. This can be done physically – by lolling out and taking up a number of seats. It could also be done graphically by ‘tagging’ around various places. But the most immediate and obvious way of stating that you have control over a space is aurally because it flows so widely.

Clearly this is not about a need to hear music. The sound quality on a phone is terrible (though improving, and, horribly, music companies are now mixing music to sound better on these devices by boosting the treble) and wearing headphones would clearly lead to better sound for them and silence for everyone else. But it’s not about the music – it’s about trying to own a space.

Why then does this lead to such intense irritation? Again, it is not really about the sort of music being played. Would people complain less if someone boarded a bus and was playing Beethoven? I think that would depend on the person who was doing it. Because this is the thing: it’s not the music that is threatening, it’s the people playing it.

The anxiety and irritation that comes from music played like this is about the sort of people who are challenging to take control of a space. People find it irritating because they see it as a threat.

The music is an aural declaration of ownership of a space, and the anxiety is about not wanting those people to have that ownership. Why? Partly because we find it annoying that what is meant to be a democratically shared space – a bus – has been turned into a dictatorship. But partly because we find teenagers threatening per se – especially noisy ones, especially noisy ones from another culture.

This is what I look at in the book, drawing on Levinas and Zizek. Levinas is more of an optimist. ‘Look into the eyes of the other,’ he says, ‘and you’ll find goodness there.’ His challenge is to get to know these people, to overcome our fears about them. In other words, these teenagers are good people really, it’s just that we don’t know them yet, and so are afraid.

Zizek is critical of this. He sees that our anxiety comes not from our own unresolved feelings about the other, but from our concern that they have not resolved their own feelings within themselves.

In other words, the fear that we have of teenagers is that they are fearful and insecure themselves. This, I think is far more insightful. People play music on buses because they want to mark out space. But why do they feel the need to mark out space? Because they feel insecure, feel the need to proactively grab space and make it theirs.

What then would this suggest about how best to deal with the problem? Firstly, I’d say that we need to look into ourselves first and think carefully about where our irritation is seated. Perhaps we have an insecure sense of self too? Perhaps we are worried about being attacked? Or perhaps, as older people have always done, we feel threatened by the young.

Secondly, I think addressing the root of the problem will be about helping young people to feel secure in themselves. It is tough being a young person in a big city, and the need for safe spaces is huge. Playing your music on a bus is one way of creating some control over a space, and making it feel like home.

Teenagers are treated pretty badly by society in many ways. Not allowed into shops more than 2 at a time. Moved on by the police. Given tougher and tougher educational targets to meet – and then told that the exams were just easier when they meet them. So this problem needs to be faced by schools, and by parents and local councils and authorities too, who need to make young people feel welcomed and involved.

But more immediately, a smile can help. I regularly ask people to turn their music down, or off, when on a bus. And I’ve very rarely been refused. Why? Because I’ve tended to do so by trying to be polite and positive about it, rather than snapping and grimacing. Young people are not bad or totally lacking empathy. They just need to work out what their place is in the world. And it’s our job to make room for them and help them find that, not immediately snipe when they threaten our peace and quiet.

You can buy ‘Other’ here.


2 responses to “Tsskk Tsskk… Why Do Kids Play Music on Buses?”

  1. There was a whole programme on this on Radio 4 yesterday.

    One of the big things that came out about this was that actually more than just owning the space, they’re bored and think that the place needs livening up a bit – they actually think of it as a public service, and have very little concept that it might not be welcome.

    There was also a whole section on how bass is pretty much disappearing from contemporary pop music, in order to come across better on mobile phones. I’ll see if I can find it on iPlayer…

  2. Found it. It’s called: “The Sodcast Project”