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.