In a 2012 study, Audio-Technica estimated that the average person listens to 13 years' worth of music in their lifetime. I am one of those people. Every journey, every jog (I never jog), and pretty much every time I’m on my own, I’m listening to music. Last week I gave up left-wing media in a bid to try to burst my echo chamber, because I was feeling pretty guilty about being so self-satisfied in my opinion all the time. This week, I decided to give up music. Why? You'd better get comfortable…
Late last year I was really drunk at a club night in east London. There I was, dancing away unselfconsciously to some standardly nostalgic ironic clubland music, and this iconic woman who was nearing 60 approached me for a chat. The music was so loud I couldn’t hear what she was saying, so, like one respectful queen to another, I repeatedly nodded my head, smiling in agreement. What ensued is an event that I have tried desperately to erase from my memory. An event which has haunted my nasal cavities, dreams and wardrobe ever since. This woman, who until now I thought was totally on side, proceeded to take a deep amethyst-coloured bottle from her clutch, and douse me literally from head to toe in jasmine oil.
“What are you doing?” I pranged quickly. “You nodded when I asked if you like my perfume, and you nodded again when I asked if you’d like some,” she retorted.
Now, I don’t know how many people have smelled pure jasmine oil. In small quantities, it’s a remarkable scent — with calming properties genuinely akin to valium, according to the Journal of Biological Chemistry — but in high quantities, drenched across five of your favourite garments that you wear some semblance of each day, it will literally make people stop and gag as they speak to you.
The saddest part of this story isn’t my stinky-ass wardrobe. It’s that, as the fated wicked queen of Bethnal Green doused me into social extinction, my favourite ever song, ever ever, was playing: "U Sure Do", by Strike.
It’s a work of dance genius. A song that, since I woke up nearly nude in the middle of a roundabout in Lloret de Mar nine years ago with it booming from a nearby Irish pub, has never failed to transport me back to a much simpler, more joyful time. It makes me feel like I can achieve absolutely anything.
But that was it: post #jasminegate, every time I put that song on to pep me up to face another day in the era of Trump, convulsions of jasmine-induced stress washed over me, an occurrence which lasted for weeks.
Science says that music has the power to transport the listener: the rhythm, rhyme and sound of certain songs will trigger the release of memories from the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. And that’s amazing, when the memories are amazing. But there comes a problem when music transports you to a time or an event you’d rather forget. So in order to recalibrate my power song to take me back to the Costa Del Sol and out of my jasmine hell, I decided to stop listening to "U Sure Do" for a while.
The first few days of avoiding that song, I felt deep pangs of need for it: like going a little too long without a cigarette, or talking to a loved one. I thought about people who don’t listen to music – ever – and decided if I was going to avoid one song, it might be interesting to avoid music altogether, instead.
People who aren’t really into music have always somewhat confused me. It’s like when people say they see food as "fuel" and that to them, "a slice of dry toast, or a simple salad, is the same as a KFC bucket!" That, my friends, is what an #alternativefact looks like.
Living in a very overcrowded city, where the backdrop to daily life is non-stop noise, silence simply doesn’t exist. You either listen to music throughout the day, everywhere you go, or you surrender your ears to the constant whim of the city’s soundscape: a soundscape that can be invasive, unexpected, and totally uncontrollable.
As a fairly anxious person, I found it incredibly hard to relax for the first two days without Little Mix’s seminal "Touch" pounding across my skull. When I was out and about in the city without music blasting full-volume into my ears, I felt unprotected, and totally lacking control. Passing trucks, the screech of a tube door, or those two severely loud football dudes sat next to me outside Balans in Soho, all became increasingly loud the more I engaged with the soundtrack of the city, rather than the soundtrack I had chosen for it. I decided I needed to dull the sound of my surroundings, and so I bought some wax earplugs.
But the wax earplugs were too scary to actually use. After inserting one wrong on the DLR on my way into central London on day three, I spent a good part of the morning in deep paranoia, digging clear wax out of my left ear with a bobby pin. I decided that the safest course of action was to use my earphones, without any sound coming out, as my defence from the unexpected sounds of the world around. It helped: I felt more calm, and more in control of my daily movement through the city, knowing that I wouldn’t be as blindsided by a sudden noise.
This went on for a few days. The dulling of the sound of my surroundings stabilised my anxiety. But I was really missing the highs and lows that music can take you on throughout the course of a day. It’s only through the lack of it that I realised I have used music to furnish my experience of the world for as long as I can remember. If I want to feel angry I’ll listen to an angry song (probs Alanis Morrissette's "You Oughta Know"); if I want to feel sad, I’ll listen to Alanis Morrissette's "Simple Together".
Perhaps it’s just my desperation to make the mundanity of day-to-day life into some epic film-like saga, but I always imagined it being pretty common to use music as an amplifier of mood, to use it to help you really live your feelings. After obsessively reading internet forums, Reddit feeds and the comments on a Facebook status I wrote about writing this, I realised that loads of people have loads of different experiences with music but, unsurprisingly, a lot of people use it in relation to mood control.
After a week without it, I realised that I use music as a tool to establish my control over my moods. It can be used to exaggerate feelings or suppress them; to offer calm; or to provide space and time for reflection. The final few days without it were much the same as the days before: punctuated by feeling less control, that there was no longer a way to escape – or exacerbate – certain feelings and situations. I longed to pop on a Celine Dion classic (perhaps "Call the Man" or "Fly"), curl into the foetal position and think of my lovely mum in the North, but that would mean giving in. I started singing the songs I wanted to hear to myself, loudly, in public; I also tried to mimic sounds I heard around the city exactly, as if trying to take control of the sounds of my surroundings by recreating them.
Music is unlike any other medium because you can – if you’re lucky – zone in and out of paying attention to it. You would never watch a film and tap into one minute in every 10, but with music you can do that. For me, I had never realised how much of my life is set to the backdrop of music until I cut it out of my life. For an experience which is so ubiquitous, listening to music brings with it a surprising amount of distinctly different responses that go way beyond simple taste for a genre. Giving something up teaches you about your relationship to it and, for me, the lack of music in my life has highlighted the fact that I probably have control issues, because even after a week I couldn’t settle into the idea of surprise, of the city and the people in it dictating the sounds I hear in my day-to-day life.
Giving up music made me feel incredibly introverted, anxious, and agitated. I think I feel inclined to try to expose myself to more sounds outside of my Tidal playlist, because perhaps it isn’t really living if you’re living in your own personally soundtracked movie. As glam as that sounds.
As I come to the end of this process, I am sat here with my finger hovering over the play button for "U Sure Do", ready to listen to my first song in a week. I’m pressing play right now…
…yep. Still smell jasmine.