People Are Remembering What Music Is Really For

Listening that revolves around headphones, singular geniuses, aesthetic subcultures, and record-industry behemoths is not what’s generating heat right now.

Yee Feng sings "Keep Your Head Up" by Andy Grammer with wife, Carolyn, and kids Ellie, 9, and Jediah, 11, during a neighborhood sing-along they have started doing each evening to connect with neighbors while social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak in Seattle.
The reasons to want more communal singing in America have never been purely aesthetic or nostalgic. (Reuters / Lindsey Wasson)

It was getting late on Sunday night. The cheers that wash over New York City at 7 p.m. every day for hospital workers had happened hours before. Inside, I was mainlining an HBO drama about doom and dissolution, as one does during a pandemic. Yet deep in my consciousness, a warm and familiar tune played. Sometimes in our lives / We all have pain … Of course: “Lean on Me” by the recently departed Bill Withers. It got louder. And louder. Turns out it wasn’t coming from my brain. A car outside, with its speakers turned up surely past any legal limit, rolled by with the slowness of an ice-cream truck.

Who was driving? No idea. It wasn’t the first time a one-ride parade had bombarded a New York block with some song. But in this instance, it shook up my night, mood-wise. I looked out, I hummed, and I felt fellowship—with whoever was in that car, with the planet’s worth of people mourning Withers, and with the other neighbors on my street no doubt hearing the same thing. It was as close to a concert or club as I’ve come in almost a month. That’s not because of the music’s loudness; it’s because the music felt shared.

Here is the kind of crowd culture we can, when we’re lucky, enjoy during isolation. Everywhere, the coronavirus has turned empty streets into acoustically rich amphitheaters. In locked-down Italy, the media took note as arias drifted from balconies. In the U.K., five BBC stations synched up for a national sing-along. In Seattle, in Chicago, in Dallas, apartment complexes and cul-de-sac driveways now regularly host socially distanced renditions of Bon Jovi, of Queen, and—of course—of Withers. Nuns have gone caroling; gospel choirs have video-harmonized. Though often grassroots and impromptu, the open-air approach has caught the attention of slick entertainers too. Disney has scheduled sing-alongs, as has the cast of Hamilton.

At the same time, the typical ways of experiencing music seem to have taken a back seat. Streaming services such as Spotify have seen modest declines in usage, even though theoretically their adherents have more time for listening. Mega-famous musicians have postponed album releases. Even some music critics (ahem) have admitted to prizing silence over songs lately. The model of listening that revolves around headphones, singular geniuses, aesthetic subcultures, and record-industry behemoths is, in other words, not what’s generating heat right now.

Instead, participation and inclusion are in. There are the sing-alongs, obviously. Terrestrial radio—everyone tuning in to the same frequency, with a chatty host—has seen a spike. Live-streamed concerts in which performers take requests have healthy viewership. So do live-streamed DJ sets in which viewers can see other people dancing at home. Many of the musicians who have continued to launch new work into this crisis have focused on interactivity. The alt-pop sensation Grimes put out a music video with a green-screen background on which fans were supposed to doodle. The hardcore band The Armed released audio stems of a song they wanted others to finish. Drake covered his face and attempted to introduce a viral dance.

With the concert halls and churches where people typically get their mass-music kicks closed, it’s unsurprising that isolation-friendly approximations of the same have popped up. But what’s happening is not a simple transposition of pre-isolation life into the weird new now. Even if temporary, the turn toward communal listening has the air of something deep and primal. Popular music in the 21st century has been defined by personality cults, hyper-individualized use, and the concept of entertainment. Different motives than those have driven music consumption for most of human history—and, it appears, in the historical moment that’s unfolding.

In 1995, the National Association for Music Education declared a national emergency. The introduction of its then-released songbook Get America Singing … Again! went like this:

Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, raised the specter of a spring where birds, killed off by pesticides, did not sing anymore. Well, today many of us are starting to worry whether people are singing anymore. We meet increasing numbers of adults who call themselves “non-singers,” children who enter kindergarten without having experienced family singing, and teenagers who would rather slap on earphones than sing. What is at stake here is not just singing, but the very spirit of community in our towns, our cities, and our nation.

The book, and the education campaign it was launched with, tried to evangelize a more singing-centric society. What actually ensued, of course, was the 21st-century explosion of headphone culture. A 2012 Atlantic piece by Karen Loew, headlined “How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life,” noted that sports and organized religion were, for many people, the last bastions of a habit once integral to informal gatherings and even workplaces.

“Clearly we need the outlet of singing—witness the karaoke-bar boom—but as civic engagement declined, our store of true folk songs evaporated,” Loew wrote. “You can blame all the usual causes for withering ‘social capital,’ from dependence on electronic entertainment, to lengthening work days that reduce free time, to an ever more diverse society, in which your songs are not mine. The elevation of the American Idol model and the demotion of the casual crooner is a real discouragement to amateurs as well.”

The reasons to want more communal singing are not aesthetic or nostalgic. They’re sociological and even biological. Great bodies of research show that singing with other people releases pleasure hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It can also forge bonds between participants and reduce feelings of loneliness. It’s possible these features are not bonus effects but the reason humans sing at all. Psyche Loui, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Northeastern University, told me that the pandemic is bolstering her view that, in evolutionary terms, music’s role is for social connection and cohesion.

“If you look at music around the world, every culture has music, and every culture makes music for each other,” Loui told me. “What we’re seeing right now, in a time of uncertainty and social isolation—people are really seeking out music as a way to still make that signal that we still care about each other. We still want to move together and sing together.”

It might seem like a no-brainer that togetherness is a primary benefit of music. But think about that idea in relation to the ways of listening enabled by 20th- and 21st-century technology. When you tune your earbuds to a playlist on a crowded subway, or blast your favorite album alone in your car, what are you doing? You’re regulating your own mood. You’re occupying your mind. You’re enjoying an art form that captures the ineffable. These are great things. But if you’re plugging into a greater human whole, it’s only in a notional way: a feeling of closeness with the singer, perhaps, and with their far-flung fan scene, maybe. To unlock music’s pleasures, past generations had little choice but to do it in a more directly social way. And by past, I mean “very past.”

It’s approaching cliché to note that there is a whiff of the ancient in this global moment of people hunkering in their personal caves and worrying anew about survival. But oddly, whatever reversion is unfolding also accelerates ultra-futuristic 21st-century trends. Before this pandemic even began, I would scroll through TikTok, the video-sharing platform on which music seems to lubricate an ever-rolling house party, and wonder if it represented—to use meme terminology—a radical cultural reset.

This thinking had been informed by reading Ted Gioia’s 2019 book, Music: A Subversive History, which took a sprawling and feisty look at songs’ role across all of human existence. What Gioia makes clear up front is that music in our distant past was a survival tool. To say it helped cohere Stone Age humans into communities is an understatement; music may have actually been a precursor to language. It also may have helped people scare predators away, or herd them so as to hunt them. Music’s physiologically entrancing properties were put to use both in warfare and in medicine.

What’s most difficult for a modern reader to comprehend is that early songs may have existed without some concepts we think of as integral. The notion that music could express a singer’s inner life had to be invented, Gioia argues. So did the idea that songs even had defined, nameable authors. “Note that I haven’t used the word audience yet,” Gioia writes in an early chapter on prehistoric times. “Certainly there were participants—there always are in rituals, where even those who remain silent are integrated into the proceedings … In contrast, the concept of an ‘audience’ for a musical performance is foreign to many traditional cultures. The hierarchies of modern-day entertainment, which radically separate performer from spectator, rarely apply to these situations, in which everyone is invited to contribute, to some degree, in the musical life of the community.”

He goes on, “For the same reason, music is frequently connected to dance in traditional societies—so much so that any attempt to isolate a ‘song’ and assess it in the same way a musicologist studies a movement of a Beethoven symphony is often an exercise in futility and self-deception.”

Right now, the No. 1 song in the country is “Blinding Lights,” by The Weeknd. In some ways, though, The Weeknd—the pop star himself—feels incidental to the song’s popularity. As I wrote last week, the tune has inspired a quarantine-appropriate dance craze on TikTok; in the videos, you hear just the song’s intro and only a second or two of singing. The point is the music’s pulse, its pep, and more than anything, the way it has been consumed: by unfamous people doing goofy routines. This is typical of the phenomenon of the TikTok hit. No visual that the now-ubiquitous rapper Roddy Ricch has put out is as memorable as the clips of people finding uses for the squeaky beat of his No. 1 hit “The Box” are. Lil Nas X may be a magnetic young celeb—but “Old Town Road” conquered less because of his official videos than because of the dress-up routines the song inspired on social media.

TikTok users, whose numbers are skyrocketing because of social isolation, are not hunting big game or warding off evil spirits. But they are engaged in acts of participation meant to inspire more participation, which en masse create cultural connections that don’t hinge on singular star leadership. Sonically, the music popular on the platform trends mechanical, maniacal, and distorted—yet it’s used in ways that are reminiscent of folk traditions. Take the phenomenon of storytelling set to an auto-tuned melody. When I watched a girl complaining about her Olive Garden job in a lilting, electronic pitch, my mind—to my own shock—went to the Jewish rites of sing-speaking the Torah.

It’s been clear for a while now that TikTok’s interactivity is a real threat to the blockbuster-based pop ecosystem of the 21st century. Viral hits by relative newcomers have blocked a number of singles by celebrity singers—Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift—from hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100. The pandemic, which is generating music memes and dance fads at a dizzying pace, will accelerate this dynamic. Already, it’s been widely written that A-listers seem especially impotent and inessential in this crisis. It’s a moment in which hierarchy seems especially officious and the iPhone lens has turned out to have leveling properties. It’s also obvious that pop singers and movie actors rarely set out to forge social ties with their work. They really set out for their own fame.

The clearest example of how cultural winds have reversed remains the disastrous Instagram video of celebrities performing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It was ostensibly a sing-along—but few viewers took it as anything but a shoddy bit of promotional content by people pre-assured of their own importance. Loui, the music neuroscientist, said she thinks the backlash to the “Imagine” video shows the way in which humans are primed to use music as a social tool. “People are really good at picking out what the genuine intent in music making is,” she told me. “Because we are sensitive to that, a performance that is made for purposes other than to communicate or encourage social bonds with other people gets laughed at.” That’s the case in any era, but now that everyone seems to be set equally apart, it’s time for performances that make people feel shoulder to shoulder.