December 11, 2018, 2:56

I Am Worried About My Ears |

I Am Worried About My Ears |

If the wellness
boom of the past several years has suggested anything, it’s that there is no
human deficiency that cannot be massaged away via a spirited commitment
to transcendental meditation, expensive tubs of
dust, or activated
charcoal. This makes the immutable truth about noise-induced hearing
once a person’s hair cells (the sensory receptors of the inner ear,
which are responsible for detecting sound waves) are damaged, there’s no
pill or procedure that will reverse the affliction—all the more
devastating. If you are a person who feels reliant on music to get
through the day, the idea that the thing you love can also destroy your
capacity to love it feels not poetic but merely cruel.

My beleaguered physician has assured me that I’m doing O.K. in this
department, though I nonetheless regularly indulge in
online hearing tests and do a silent,
triumphant jab at the air with my fist when I pass. (“Your results
suggest that you may not have a hearing problem.”) A study by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in 2012, estimates
that perhaps as many as forty million adults in the U.S. under the age
of seventy suffer from some hearing loss because of noise exposure, and
I worry that a lifetime of truly irresponsible listening practices—long
runs with “Appetite for Destruction” roaring from my headphones, rock
concerts at which I flicked my earplugs out of my ears so I could do a
fully unencumbered jig directly in front of a speaker—will inevitably
have repercussions. What if I can no longer hear the whistled part at
the end of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” or Lou
Reed’s ghostly warbles on “I Can’t Stand It,” or when the backing
vocalists (“Oh yeah-ah-ahh!”) pipe in during the chorus of “Pressure
Drop” by Toots and the Maytals? I imagine the Grim Reaper, cloaked and
clutching a scythe, his hollowed eyes fixated on my ear canals. I
imagine a cold and colorless life.

If you are, like me, entirely paranoid about preserving the integrity of
your hearing, and if you also live in a midsize or large city, you have
likely realized that true quiet—much like true darkness—is in
horrifyingly short supply. Sirens, idling trucks, other people’s irate
phone calls, crying babies, construction crews cracking up the pavement,
lonesome dogs tied to fence posts, buskers whacking upturned plastic
buckets, the gruesome screech of subway brakes: it is an ugly and
relentless symphony. Some days, I calm down only by locking the door to
my apartment, slapping on my noise-cancelling headphones, and comparing
prices for plane tickets to the quietest places on Earth (a nature
reserve in Russia, a cenote on the Yucatán Peninsula, a national park in

Some have
suggested that the Baby Boomers are responsible for seeding the notion that volume
itself can be a countercultural act—the idea of blasting music as a show
of impassioned rebellion—but loudness is also a contemporary problem,
further enabled by new technology. In recent decades, mastering
engineers have been tasked with making studio albums louder via the
application of something called dynamic range compression; essentially,
the volume gets turned up on the quiet bits, and turned down on the loud
bits. The cumulative effect is a song that sounds bigger and punchier,
and is easier to hear in a moving car or via a laptop’s tinny built-in
speakers. Of course, compressed songs also sound squished—in art, at
least, the push toward a democratic mean tends to erase friction and
nuance. Dynamic range compression is essentially the audio equivalent of
writing in all capital letters. Legibility is sacrificed, but the
results are so exaggerated that they’re difficult to ignore. By the
early aughts, the popularity of dynamic range compression led to
something called the Loudness War, in which major labels were competing
to out-blare one another, a development that benefitted no one. In 2008,
Metallica’s “Death Magnetic,” which was produced by Rick Rubin, was so
aggressively compressed it was also plainly distorted. More than
twenty-two thousand fans signed a
petition asking that the album be remastered.

For the most part, everything around us (even the
is getting progressively less quiet. In 2011, the F.C.C. had to pass a
law regulating the
volume of television commercials, lest we all be blown off our couches
every few minutes. This sweep toward loudness seems to include modern
political life, too—some days, it feels as though productive discourse
has been reduced to simply securing the most deafening
But my own concern about potential noise-induced hearing loss feels
almost too intimate to extrapolate. I am a far more careful and choosey
listener, these days. I leave my earplugs in place at shows, I play
music at safer and more civilized volumes, and I limit my daily
headphone use, all with the hope that I’ll be able to enjoy my favorite
records until I’m fully in my dotage. It’s an investment in a slippery
idea: the future. Whispering, “You should turn that down” to friends has
become my deeply annoying way of saying, “I care about you.”


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