Create Your Own Universe

There’s a scene in the movie Catch Me If You Can that always strikes me. It’s the one where the family of his fiance gathers in front of the television to Sing Along with Mitch. I remember that show; it was one of my grandmother’s favorites, along with Lawrence Welk. As a child I thought it was pretty boring (I wanted to watch cartoons), but I realize now that I knew many of the songs on those shows because I had learned them in school. Generations could sing together, and that is something that could hardly happen any more.

I don’t know what they teach in elementary school music classes anymore, or if music is even taught at all. Economics or the urgency of testing has possibly driven it out of a few schools, and certainly made it irrelevant. When my sons were in grade school I went to a few concerts; the classes sang songs that I had never heard, songs written for elementary school children to sing. No more This Land is Your Land, She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, or Sidewalks of New York.

We used to sing Christmas carols in December when I was a child; now they sing ‘winter carols’ about snowmen and ice skating. Recognizing that we are diverse, we do not share our diversity, but make up a fake culture to show fake unity.

Nobody sings along with ‘winter carols.’ They belong to no culture.

Music has become a private experience. Everyone wears headphones, listens to their own playlists, goes along in a silent bubble, isolated from everyone else. To get their attention, I have to shout. Occasionally headphones will become unattached and I’ll hear a few seconds of tinny music, but mostly they are in a private world, bobbing their heads to unheard music.

When I went to Africa a few years with a group of teenagers a few years ago, one of our rules was that no one would bring an ipod, cell phone, or any other electronic device on the trip – not even for the long plane trip. We had a couple reasons for this rule:

1) Tanzania is one of the poorest countries on the planet; to be walking around with cell phones and ipods wouldn’t project an attitude of caring.

2) Headphones in the ears cut a person off from the surroundings, put them in their own little universe. When you’re visiting someone else’s world, you need to get out of your bubble and experience it.

At first they were annoyed. On the plane, the airline supplied headsets, so the withdrawal didn’t really begin until we landed. Then we spent days on a bus, traveling across the country. And we began to have conversations. We enjoyed the singing and dancing we saw and heard in churches, but had no contribution of our own to make. We had no musical gift for our African hosts, who found this strange, and a little sad, I think.

By the end of the trip, everyone agreed that the no iPods rule was a good thing. Many close, long-lasting friendships were formed – friendships based on really knowing one another, not just having the same music on our playlists. The trip changed each one of us; we had no defense against that world. We were immersed.

Television is going in the same direction as music: privatization. We don’t have to argue about what show we’re watching; there’s a television in every room. Even if there weren’t, computers and iPhones can deliver shows to our private universes. We can watch our tiny screens anywhere we want without bothering anyone. No need for conversation. If we have to communicate, we can text one another.

What pitiful people we have become.

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