What the World Looks Like With Headphones On

Social Commentary

What the World Looks Like With Headphones On

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Seven years ago, in 2011, I found myself in possession of a princely sum of ₹600. It was the first time in my 14 years that I had that much money at once. All of this hustling was for one thing, and one thing only. A swanky pair of black Skullcandy earphones which had been seducing me from a shop’s window for more than a year. This is how I started going down the musical rabbit hole with my earphones plugged in, blasting the heavy goodness of Metallica, System of a Down, and a little bit of Iron Maiden straight into my ear canal.

Over the years, anytime I had a place to get to, I would plug in my earphones, and lose myself to some killer tunes, as the rest of the world would go by. This started out as a way to entertain myself while commuting, but slowly, it turned into an effective way to tune out my surroundings. Without music, the clamorous noise of vehicles, the murmuring of pedestrians, and the general cacophony of a noisy city would pierce my bubble of solitary bliss.

The earphones changed everything. It made me take slightly longer than I needed to on my walks, because suddenly, my surroundings seemed more enjoyable. No longer did I have to put up with annoying small talk. Together, my earphones and I could eliminate social contact and focus on what was important – picking the perfect song based on my mood.

I was wearing them to the baniya downstairs, while walking to my tuitions, and just sitting around in my room for hours on end, as my mom called me anti-social. I didn’t mind the name-calling though.

This is a large man-made black hole, and we’re all ready to jump into it, like soldiers jumping out of half-destroyed planes, ready to fight.

You see, earphones aren’t just about commuting, or finishing up daily chores, or powering through your workout. They’re there to block out everything that doesn’t matter.

When you’re just entering your twenties and have no real idea what to do with yourself, your earphones are there to fill in the gap. Why would you bother talking to anyone else when your bubble is always there, a constant companion that doesn’t believe in quid-pro-quo? No “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”

That’s really just the beginning of what’s become of us. We’ve started blocking out anyone we possibly can. You see, every bit of technology that we use, ends up becoming a crutch. We avoid parties and outings to stay in, and let Netflix take the steering wheel on a “perfect” Saturday night. We stop having conversations at the dinner table, because we’re itching to lock ourselves in our rooms and pay complete attention to our phones.

Chuck Palahniuk wasn’t kidding when he wrote in Fight Club, “The things you own, end up owning you.” I didn’t know it was this easy to block the world out. So it is with a bit of surprise that I realise how quickly I accepted it. And with how much pride I wear the badge of the anti-social addict.

Surely, social contact is another thing millennials could be accused of killing. But as it turns out, this one’s not on us.

An enlightening New Yorker essay titled, “Headphones Everywhere”, posits that this complaint is as old as portable audio. It also sheds some light on what causes this isolating behaviour. “One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ Katy Perry’s ‘Roar,’ Kanye West’s ‘Stronger,’ and (no joke) the ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme – are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds… These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: ‘Just a man / and his will / to survive!’ We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!”

Another day closer to death. And depression, social anxiety, lack of confidence, and the inability to hold proper conversations.

This is a large man-made black hole, and we’re all ready to jump into it, like soldiers jumping out of half-destroyed planes, ready to fight. Except, we’re not going to fight: We jump without any kind of support and hope that we never hit rock bottom. Perhaps, this is what it feels like to be in a perpetual downward spiral. May the force be with us. Or you know, just make another meme about this so we can divert attention away from this depressing reality.

My earphones have become like crutches that I don’t really need but still cannot do without. “Loneliness is one of the first things ordinary Americans spend their money achieving,” stated a cover story in The Atlantic a few years ago. “Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence. The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. Americans have always been willing to pay that price.”

Urban Indians, who borrow so much from American culture, surely can’t be far behind. In the world that we occupy, headphones are not the disease. They’re just the symptom.