The Person Who Listens to Everything:
Notes on Sonic Tyranny and the
Vibification of the Future

In recent years, I’ve noticed a memetic shift in how we understand and appreciate the listening habits of others.

For a while — and I would somewhat sheepishly include myself in this — there was a tendency amongst the culturally promiscuous to respond to the question “So what sort of music are you into?” with the infuriatingly woolly and vague answer: “Oh, I listen everything.”

But it is a response that, in many instances, feels nonetheless valid and needn’t be underlined by a hipster aloofness with regards to over-categorised bedroom pop. Of course, on the one hand, it can be a shy response, noncommittal, and perhaps an anxious way to avoiding self-assertion; not defining yourself specifically as “a fan of…” and not wanting someone to pigeonhole you based on the response you give, at once identity jamming and socially anxious But on the other hand, there are many people who it suits well, who really do just love listening to everything.

Beyond the stereotypes, then, I have begun to wonder if this online cynicism comes from somewhere in particular. And the obvious source is our shifting approaches to cultural engagement.

In the 2000s, spending all available time on music forms dedicated to bands I love — primarily Radiohead, Animal Collective, The Microphones/Mount Eerie (with a love of AnCo falling off hard in about 2012) — a fixated fanaticism was rarely the vibe. All the “cool” posters — if such a thing could possibly exist — hung out on disparate “Other Music” subforums, where mostly what was discussed were the diverse but intersecting interests of people who had at least one favourite band in common.

On Mortigi Tempo, Collected Animals and The Mount Eerie Preservation Society, an education was had when you would encounter various different genres of “guy”. There was the noise guy, the krautrock guy, the ambient guy, the hip hop guy, the post-punk guy, the post-rock guy, the prog guy, the modern classical guy, et al. To socialise and converse with each person online, swapping mixtapes and CDs through the mail, it didn’t take long to find yourself — especially as an impressionable teenage like myself — appreciating the merits and histories of each genre on its own terms. My listening habits soon came to reflect this kind of cultural immersion. I really did listen to everything, insatiably and with an never-ending curiosity.

Of course, this doesn’t make someone innately special and interesting, although announcing yourself as a person that listens to everything can be seen as a suggestion that you think of yourself that way. In fact, it is that creeping narcissism of generality that seems to have led to the person who listens to everything becoming the subject of such a scathing meme.

Fast-forward to the 2020s, you find memes that make jokes about “tfw you give the person who listens to everything the aux cord”, and it will generally be soundtracked by a band that many associated with the terminally online (irrespective of that band’s own merits and genuinely interesting output). Death Grips are a prime example, but regardless of the band, the overarching expectation is that the track chosen will be an assault on the senses of everyone else in the car or at the party who isn’t in control or isn’t riding shotgun.

It seems the horror of giving the person-who-listens-to-everything the aux cord is that their taste is rendered as purely abstract, but the truth is surely to the contrary. The vibe is made unquantifiable; the tracks chosen are too specific, too independent from each other. This is not the sort of curation we are used to any longer.

The joke is funny. There is no substantive or grumpy or defiant critique here. But I do wonder what this meme says more broadly about how listening habits have changed in recent years.

Consider a similar joke told from the other side:

I saw a TikTok recently — a section from some random comedian’s stand-up routine, of the kind that inundates that app these days — in which they described an encounter with a Gen Z relative, asking them what kind of music they’re into. The answer was “chill hip hop” of the sort heard on some infinite playlist of “lo-fi beats for studying”. The comedian asks for examples of bands that fit the genre but the relative can’t give any. “Imagine not knowing what bands you like?!” he says, incredulously. No discography available, taste is defined purely by vibe.

They make a further joke that actually makes this kind of cultural consumption sound more interesting, wondering what it would be like if we talked about food in the same way. I can’t remember the example given, and I’m sure I’ll not find this TikTok again if I tried, but it was a punchline that sounded like some sort of alien orientation to culture of the sort you’ll hear around the replicator in Star Trek. Objects are entirely withdrawn from their cultural context, only generalised qualities are left. “What’s your favourite kind of food?” Not Mexican or pan-Asian or Indian or fish and chips. “I like salty”; “I like soft textures.”

There is something futuristic about the suspending of specificities in this way, at least to my millennial brain, as if this is some speculative product of hyper-globalisation, such that it feels like the peak of a postmodern homogenisation of taste. But I am left wondering if there is something key lost here, such that a paradoxical critique of this kind of fear of the person who listens to all specificities, as opposed to the all-compassing generalities of vibe, is worth retaining.

There’s a really great interview with Terre Thaemlitz that was recently uploaded by NTS Radio and hosted by Zakia. Terre is asked about the critique made on Midtown 120 Blues, specifically on the track “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone)”, in which Terre critiques Madonna’s appropriation of vogue culture and her role in its genericization within mainstream house music. The voiceover on the track is as follows:

When Madonna came out with her hit “Vogue” you knew it was over. She’d taken a very specifically queer, transgender, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with lyrics about how “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the queen who actually taught her how to vogue was sitting on a table in front of me, broke. So if anybody requested “Vogue” or any other Madonna track, I just told them, “No, this is a Madonna-free zone! And as long as I’m DJing, you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”

Expanding on this in the NTS podcast, in a manner that feels notably less militant (or at least slightly less pointed), Zakia and Terre’s conversation goes like this:

You’ve been quite critical about this sort of sense of nostalgia that a lot of people have about that period of time, about that scene, the early house scene in New York. What was your experience of those clubs at that time?

Well, I mean, just like with everything in life, you know, I’ve always been a little bit at the periphery of things, even when I was somehow in the middle of it. You know, kind of a wallflower-type. And also I never did drugs, I never drank, even till today and stuff. And so I also experienced all of that dead sober.

Which makes a big difference!

It makes such a big difference! And it also makes things kind of dark. ‘Cos you’re really… You’re not only participating but you’re also kind of witnessing, you know, what is happening with the people around you. You’re seeing them as they enter into and come out of their different states of being and mind through chemicals and stuff like that. And also the kind of drug scene at [NYC club] Sally’s and things like that was also quite complicated because, you know, America doesn’t have socialised healthcare, even today, still. So when it came to the kind of trans scenes and stuff, you’re dealing with a lot of people who had been kind of disowned by family, a lot of homeless street kids kind of trying to figure out if they wanted to transition or whatnot, and their access to those hormone therapies and things like that were also from the same drug dealer who was selling the coke and other stuff, and so it wasn’t just like [a] recreational kind of dealer thing going on, it was also like all this stuff connected to the transitioning culture, and as a result of the fact that most of the people there were struggling financially and stuff as well, and you also maybe had like one person who buys them hormones but then they needed money so they sold half to other people. So then that would mean they were deregulated. It would also mean the people who were buying it weren’t getting enough, so they were deregulated, and all of these bodies — intergenerational, deregulated body scene… And that also had a deep impact on my own decisions as someone who does not kind of conform to gender norms, in seeing a kind of intergenerational scene of like financial and social and emotional and hormonal kind of turmoil that the overwhelming majority of people were experiencing — that also kind of informed my own attempts to get through this world without those sorts of things. Yeah.

It’s a fascinating response, specially when seen written down. In some ways, it feels like Terre sidesteps the question all together. Zakia asks specifically about the experience of a music scene and its appropriation, but Terre’s response doesn’t even mention the sounds of the dancefloor at all. The focus is entirely extra-musical, with the dancefloor just a meeting place for different demographics, who do not necessarily congeal without friction, or whose relations are so much more complex than the music itself might suggest on its own.

Perhaps what I find jarring about this is how it differs from the response I expect. To talk about nostalgia for a scene, I expect to hear something about the labels, the sound, the excitement produced by the blossoming of something. But there is little nostalgia within Terre’s response. There is no mention of the tunes that may define that time period in the memory of others. All that is commented on is the community, but of course, community is always the most important part of any scene.

Zakia nonetheless turns back to the music itself, as if trying to gently lead the conversation back towards the sounds themselves. Terre’s response is once again unexpected, but nonetheless illuminating:

Do you feel like DJs who are playing a lot of the sorts of music from this era now, or like, you know, producing music that is sort of derivative of it… Do you feel like they have a sort of obligation, or do you feel like they should be conscious of these sort of darker elements of that period? Or do you think they should become conscious of it? Or can they just sort of play the music and get on with it?

[Pause] I don’t really care.

[Zakia laughs]

You know, in terms of like what other people… Like, I’m not here to tell other people what they should do and, you know, what they shouldn’t do or anything. I know that the overwhelming majority of people don’t need to care about it. You know. And that’s what a load of these issues are about, and I’ve always had a kind of awareness that not everything is everyone. And that, I think, has kind of informed my anti-populist stance, you know, that’s not about being against populism in an elitist, ivory-tower way, but the opposite: of thinking about locality and specificity and what it is to be culturally minor and [to] understand that the topics at hand… You know, a lot of these things, especially when it comes to things around gender and sexuality and stuff, things are kind of really convoluted and changing these days with social media and all that stuff. But you know, by and large, historically speaking, these are issues that people deal with out of necessity. You know, I mean, it’s things that you’re exposed to… It’s not like you make a choice to go into something. You know, it’s thrown on you. You know? … So things are just kind of thrown on you, and for the people who don’t experience those things, it makes sense that they wouldn’t naturally have an exposure to that, so then you have the conundrum of: okay, well, then do I just kind of want everyone to act like a shit liberal and pretend they understand things that they really don’t? Or would I rather want to interact with people in a more kind of sincere manner that — although it might reflect politics that are quite different from mine — can allow for a different level of solidarity when thinking about things like social organising and things like that, you know? Actually finding the points of solidarity as opposed to a kind of social fawning, and kind of focus on the community building, you know, rather than… I mean, community in the way that it’s been twisted with time now and identity politics into something that is about a kind of shared conformity of experience.

It’s a sentiment I explored towards the end of Egress, in which I discuss DJ Sprinkles in this context explicitly: talking about the ways that many of us, in spite of (or perhaps because of) our grief, threw ourselves into dancefloor joy, coming together amidst the turmoil of our own individual experiences. The sentiment, which my friend Natasha Eves immortalised, was one of “solidarity without similarity”. (I was overjoyed to hear Thaemlitz express a fidelity to this experience so explicitly, all these years later.)

This may seem tangential to the discussion above of the person who listens to everything, but I see a lot of resonance here regardless. For those of us who didn’t have club scenes growing up, who didn’t have that experience of moving to the big city and being raised by second queer families in the way that is today acknowledged (sometimes even romanticised) from the Eighties and Nineties, we at least had the Internet. That was the space we shared; that was the space in which we explored things through necessity.

Though “despatialised”, in a sense, this experience felt no less localised. The Radiohead forum Mortigi Tempo, for instance, was as much a space for talking about that band and other music we were into as it was a space for jousting about politics and it is also where I first engaged in discussions around gender identity. I made a friend on that forum who I later met (very much serendipitously) in real life. It turned out that they went to school with my housemate at university and we later lived together at a time when they had very much explored their own sense of non-binary identity and were very much out of the closet.

It would take me a lot longer to reach that point, but I remember being very drunk on Hallowe’en in 2021, whilst living in Huddersfield, which I was using as an excuse to throw myself a birthday party early. They came up from London to hang out and later on that night I drunkenly fawned over them saying how they were something of an inspiration to me, that I wished I had their confidence and moved through the world with the self-assurance they did. (Now that I feel like I am doing so, I have been on the receiving end of that kind of conversation myself, and I am regretful about my drunken enthusiasm, if only because I know how seen it makes me feel and how strange it can be.)

Suffice it to say, the relationship developed with this person who I witnessed and who made me feel like I too could affirm and express my sense of self in whatever way that I wanted was very much borne of a kind of sonic community building, albeit of a different and less celebrated type. And the listening we did over the decade or so that we were in each other’s orbit — on- and offline — was a major part of that. To be a person who listens to everything, to take the aux cord and share the culturally minor sounds that spoke to us, was an action that resonates with culturally minor forms of dress and social comportment as well. It is only now, with the benefit of over a decade’s hindsight, that I have come to truly appreciate that.

Although this is an experience that may not neatly congeal with the image of the “music bro” that the meme is used to poke fun at, it is nonetheless a kind of minoritarian listening that falls under the same affects of listening to everything. Though listening to everything might easily be a form of hipster populism, the true joys of such an exercise come from an honest engagement in other scenes, other forms of life, and not necessarily understanding them or feeling a deep affinity with their specificities, but nonetheless meeting this music and its associated communities where you find them. It is not so much a sonic tourism, as an appreciation of other cultures and their differences. It is to seek solidarity without similarity. It is something that so many go looking for online and off. It is what you hope to get from a good mix CD or a good club night. After all, there is surely some strained crossover between the aux-cord tyrant and the respected DJ, even though their contexts may differ wildly. As a point of curation and subjection, there is power to be found in affirming the culturally minor against the homogeneity of your infinitely generated chilled-beats playlist.

In The Order of Sounds, François Bonnet writes that

desire and power are not simply opposing terms: each excites and stimulates the other, each one is by turns means and end of the other. Power is desirable, but it is also an instrument for the deployment of desire.

But power also “has another ability which desire does not have at its disposal”, namely its tendency towards establishing “order”. To talk, to make sound, to listen — all of these acts play a role in the mechanisms necessary needed to establish an order (of understanding) in any instance: discourse.

Discourse, for Bonnet, is both an act of ordering and also the struggle for order itself: “Discourse intervenes in listening by turning the perceived object into an object that can be spoken or described, classified, linked to this or that other object — that is to say, by making it communicable.” He adds: “Discourse introduces heard sound into a community.”

With Spotify curation or lo-fi beats playlists on YouTube, as well as the sonic purview that each establishes for its community of listeners, is a discourse not pre-established, even restricted, in being curated in advance based on commodified desires? Many have previously written on the act of genrefication, arguably nothing more than a marketing tool, and its impact on listening habits, but perhaps playlistification is the next step in this corporatizing process.

Spotify, in the realm of sonic discourse, represents a kind of soft power that has the tendency to feel all-consuming (or perhaps all-producing). Does the person who listens to everything not then humiliate this popular “discourse”, introducing disorder, as if the hostile vibe of disordered sound or extrinsic taste frustrates Spotify’s own version of “reason” or its own kind of sonic “common sense”?

This kind of disorder is not other to discourse, however — it is not sonic nonsense, as the memes may often make out. It is the introduction of other sound worlds, other sonic communities. The rupture produced by the person who listens to everything is “[a]t once more and less than discourse, it is a discursive seed. It is that which, as yet silent, provokes listening, determines an aim for it, a reason.” It is thus that the power found in discourse comes from the fact that is “exerts an authority”.

The aux cord is a symbol of such power, a symbol of subjugation. What will you, who possesses the aux cord, choose to subject your fellow listeners to? It is for this reason “that listening is a matter of interest to power and authority; control of listening (the listening of those upon whom one seeks to exert power) and control via listening (the surveillance of those whom one wishes to master) become decisive functions for anyone who seeks power.”

But it needn’t be the case that this kind of sonic subjection, as an exercise of power, is always a negative — that is to say, an unpleasurable — experience. (The tension between the two French words for power, puissance and pouvoir, is undoubtedly integral to this.)

It is here that Bonnet pays particular attention to a kind of “[t]yrannical power of listening” that may “dumbfound” the listener, and there may be no affect more implicitly associated with the person who listens to everything.

This dumbfounding is both an experience that may accost us and/or one that we might actively seek out. To attend a performance by a particularly experimental musician or DJ, for instance, we might go knowing full well — even relishing the fact — that our ears (and our bodies as a whole, singularly and collectively) will be challenged. (This was certainly my mindset on attending Bang Face six weeks ago.)

It is an experience that Bonnet also notably associates with religious liturgy. To seek out a dumbfounding is a “custom”, he says, even a “‘tradition'” in many cultures. He also associates it with radio — “an important locus for the dumbfounding and control of the author.” He notes Adorno’s interest in radio, specifically its use as a Nazi propaganda tool — not forgetting that Adorno experimented with the medium himself, perhaps as a way of subverting this more dominant twentieth-century usage — as well as William Burroughs’ interest in radio not as a tool for “maintaining order or promoting ideologies; on the contrary, [as a tool for] disintegrating them and provoking disorder and confusion.”

More recently, I can think of no better commentator on this process than Steve Goodman, whose Sonic Warfare bridges the gap between audio-tyranny from above and below. It is a book, first published in 2010, that anticipates the decade ahead. Prior to the established ubiquity of algorithms, though Spotify was already a popular music platform, at that time I remember using it to curated my own playlists exclusively. It was perhaps this extractive period of “preemptive power” that allowed Spotify to use such playlists to train itself on future listening habits. As Goodman writes:

Preemptive power seeks to colonize this activity of the future [– in this context, perhaps the future overreliance on the playlist –] in the present. Anticipative branding culture, for example, sets out to distribute memory implants, which provide you with the sense of the already enjoyed — already sensed — to encourage repetition of consumption, a repetition of a memory you have not had. This strain of building is at the forefront of crystallizing memories of the future — memories that are only virtual despite their sense of familiarity… No longer relying on lived bodily experience — actual sensory responses — brand memory implementation operates through the body’s remembering a virtual sensation. In short-term intuition, the future yet to be formed is actively populating the sensations of the present, anticipating what is to come, the feeling of what happens before its actualization. Preemptive power therefore invests in the contagious virtual residue of memory. The sonic mnemotechnics of capitalism modulate future desire by activating the future in the present.

It is interesting to see how this preemptive power exerts itself today. What may have previously been most applicable to brands is now made more amorphous through music-industrial marketing’s ability to produce memories of the future through the explicit historicization of the present.

Consider how pop experimentalism is today made static in advance through the preemptive curation of an “era”. Exceedingly popular artists like David Bowie or Björk are/were fascinating for their individual sense of futurity. Album to album, you could hardly expect what stylistic interests would define each cycle. These cycles were also generally periodised in hindsight. Bowie is the most obvious example. From Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke to his typical derided drum’n’bass era, Bowie simply appeared plugged into his present and responded accordingly. Today, such shifts in stylistic approach are concretized in advance, however. Pop stars like Lorde, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift define their “eras” prior to any release, easing the listener into a new album’s sound before they have ever heard a single note. What is marketed is not so much a new sound as a new present, a new temporality for the hungry fan. What is otherwise implicit becomes a core part of the marketing campaign. “Are you ready to have the next six months defined in your memory by so-and-so’s next album?” What might have happened naturally is called upon and shaped in advance. Sonic warfare, seizing the specificities of the present and using them for your own ends, becomes a kind of sonic acquiescence. This is now and also the future you will remember. How to frustrate such a process, tyrannically prefigured by corporate interests?

Goodman suggests we turn to the Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy’s term for “a counterculture of modernity”. Gilroy’s term is notably geopolitical and so expansive as to feel unquantifiable, but such is his intent. Beginning from two polarities of identity — his being both European and black — and instead situating himself in the oceanic space in between the two, placing innumerable specificities into the space that surrounds two “genres” of self, which are themselves both affirmed and eluded, he mines the “contact zones” of disparate localities, aiming again for a “solidarity without similarity”:

What might be called the peculiarity of the black English requires attention to the intermixture of a variety of distinct cultural forms. Previously separated political and intellectual traditions converged and, in their coming together, overdetermined the process of black Britain’s social and historical formation. This blending is misunderstood if it is conceived in simple ethnic terms, but right and left, racist and anti-racist, black and white tacitly share a view of it as little more than a collision between fully formed and mutually exclusive cultural communities. This has become the dominant view where black history and culture are perceived, like black settlers themselves, as an illegitimate intrusion into a vision of authentic British national life that, prior to their arrival, was as stable and as peaceful as it was ethnically undifferentiated. Considering this history points to issues of power and knowledge that are beyond the scope of this book. However, though it arises from present rather than past conditions, contemporary British racism bears the imprint of the past in many ways. The especially crude and reductive notions of culture that form the substance of racial politics today are clearly associated with an older discourse of racial and ethnic difference which is everywhere entangled in the history of the idea of culture in the modem West. This history has itself become hotly contested since debates about multiculturalism, cultural pluralism, and the responses to them that are sometimes dismissively called “political correctness” arrived to query the ease and speed with which European particularisms are still being translated into absolute, universal standards for human achievement, norms, and aspirations.

What Gilroy aims for, in a way, is a retention of difference. Not the “shit liberal” universalism that Thaemlitz also spoke of, but a retention of black English experience as a kind of viral infection, which mutates the body-politic inside which it finds itself. Goodman calls this process a kind of “dub virology”, which “produces a very different viropolitics of frequency in contrast to that implemented by sonic branding.” He continues:

Whereas sonic branding seeks to induce consumption by channeling sound’s power into the modulation of affective tonality [what we might now call “vibes”] in order to force associations with real or virtual products, Black Atlantic futurism seeks to enact the demise of Babylon through dread engineering and the tactical deployment of sonic dominance.

Just as Burroughs sought to sonically disintegrate ideologies and provoke disorder and confusion, dub virology aims not for cultural assimilation but mutation. It is a form of subjection from below that enacts minoritarian powers against the majoritarian; a practice of (black) antagonism [cf. Saidiya Hartman].

When we think of the person who listens to everything, suspending their generalised dismissal as hipster nuisance, perhaps we can understand them as someone who listens to more than just vibes, as someone attuned to the extra-musical implications of sonic warfare. But even their status as a “nuisance” can be affirmed in this regard.

Terre Thaemlitz’ 2016 book, Nuisance: Writing on identity jamming & digital audio production, begins with a noteworthy definition of the term:

nuisance noun 1. a thing, person or situation that is annoying, inconvenient, or causes trouble or problems; 2. behavior which is harmful, offensive or annoying to the public or a member of it and that a court of law can order the person to stop.

To be a nuisance is to be a “feminist killjoy”, perhaps, as Sara Ahmed writes. It is to intervene in a discourse, making it other at the same time as contributing to its purview. It is not strictly an extraction or an infusion, but what Mark Fisher calls “dubtraction“. Quoting an old blogpost, almost lost to cyber-redundancy, Goodman highlights the following definition:

Dubtraction is the hyperdub practice par excellence… Fundamentally, dubtraction is about the the production of virtualities, implied songs all the sweeter for their lack of solid presence. It’s all about what is left out, an involutive process that identifies desire with the occupation of a plateau. Hints, suggestions, feints: these complications of desire function not as teases but as positive deviations from both climax and monotonous idling on the spot. Dubtraction understands that desire is about neither engorgement nor emaciation, but about getting the right amount you need in order to keep moving.

The social status of the person-who-listens-to-everything has led to this dubtractive modus operando being excised almost completely. Only the generalised marker of the nuisance remains, decontextualising its fundamentally deconstructive function. Discourse is not so much infected as denied altogether. This is not the vibe. But perhaps it is the preemptive vibe that is entirely the problem. Affirm listening to everything, but remember to eschew the homogeneity it implies. Jam the signal. Dub the algorithm.

Leave a Reply