[Note from Eseminar moderator Mark Pedelty, dated Jan 30, 2018: The Ecomusicology ESeminar moves to its second stage this week with Denise Von Glahn’s response to Jessica Schwartz’s manuscript, “Listen and Learn.” Please read Jessica’s piece if you have not had a chance yet, as well as Denise’s thoughtful review below. The floor will open to everyone this next Monday, February 5.]
Responses to readings can take many forms: some critique the contents by pointing to philosophical disagreements, or challenge the use of specific evidence or the conclusions drawn, while others more generally contextualize the work within a relevant body of literature and address the issues that confront scholars working in the broader field; still other respondents use the forum as a springboard to consider potential directions for future investigations, or as an opportunity to reflect on more personal engagements with the materials. Regardless of the orientation or focus of any response, the best ones catalyze conversations that then take on lives of their own: that is my intention here. Let’s talk.
Jessica Schwartz studies a particular kind of listening and learning in the early post-World War II atomic age: modifying a phrase coined by historian Scott C. Zeman, Schwartz characterizes the focus of her own project as “high atomic listening culture” (6). She describes the ways the U.S. government, through its strategically marketed and disseminated Federal Civil Defense Program, strove to teach Americans to be alert to the likelihood of a Russian nuclear attack. Their program would be delivered largely through radio broadcasts, the technology of choice at the time, careful management and monitoring of the nation’s emotional condition, the cultivation of a hyper-vigilance aural state in general, and more specifically the development of a patriotic citizen characterized by his “hyper-vigilant ear.” The language of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) used exclusively masculine pronouns to reference the nation’s citizens.
As Schwartz observes, the success of the government’s agenda depended upon citizens embracing the idea that our near-certain apocalyptic end would be accompanied by an opportunity for creativity. But to participate in that post-tribulation creative endeavor, one had to survive, hence the catchy phrase, “alert today, alive tomorrow” (13). Like Dieter Bögenhold, Schwartz also understands that “creative destruction ha[d] to be seen in a wider context of innovation and entrepreneurship” (3). But it would be argued that there was more at stake than mere personal survival or creativity: the whole idea of freedom was at risk as well. Alert, hyper-attentive listening could guarantee the American dream at home, abroad, and even into outer space, that “final frontier.” As Schwartz observes: “listening was central to survival” (11).
To strike a balance between paralyzing terror and productive fear, the nuclear crisis had to be normalized, made the quotidian reality—what strikes me as a perverse post-war variation on an early twentieth-century aesthetic known as “the art of the everyday.” And it is this government-sanctioned goal of normalizing the unthinkable, of selling destruction as opportunity, of using sound, not just to alert but to inure, that resonates so loudly and so personally. It is what I see happening today with assaults on the natural world and on what I thought were rules of civil behavior and engagement: we have normalized the unthinkable.
Schwartz offers up two popular songs of the time, Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream) by The Chords and Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town), performed by Bill Haley and His Comets, both from 1954, as examples of ways thoughts of a nuclear holocaust infiltrated radio broadcasting in more entertaining ways. Whether the brief and casual suggestion of an explosion or a single reference to a dream about the H-bomb in the texts of the songs is enough to persuade readers of the musical analyses that Schwartz offers is not essential to my appreciation of her point that even early R & B and Rock n’ Roll songs lived within an environment where “nuclear talk” was omnipresent.
The age that Schwartz describes is not a bygone era, and the thinking she reports on does not belong to some distant culture or tribe: it was my childhood, first in NYC, and then in a Long Island suburb, eighteen miles to the east. I wonder if my seemingly natural sensitivity to sound and my scholarly focus on listening is a long-lasting echo of my atomic youth. Routine tests of the city’s air-raid sirens blasted at noon each Friday; Civil Defense pamphlets were ubiquitous, and signs indicating the location of fallout shelters were posted on school buildings and libraries; commercial airlines flights regularly created sonic booms that rattled windows and sent children shaking and crying into their homes before noise ordinances prohibited their occurrence; “cover-uncover” exercises in elementary schools were as regular as fire drills: at the sound of a particular alarm, distinguishable by the number and duration of the beeps, children quickly filed out of their classes, sat cross-legged against the interior walls of the main halls, and crouched over keeping their heads tucked down until the principal, announced “all clear.” Such were the norm, but they were no less emotionally devastating because of their ubiquity; and the idea of immediate disintegration in a nuclear blast was no less disassembling to five-, six-, and seven-year-olds because they were assured they’d feel no pain. Nightmares, night terrors, and constant low-level fear were common companions to the youngest children of the time. In an interview with Libby Larsen (b. 1950), the composer spoke of living with the Doomsday Clock, a device created in 1947 by a group of Chicago scientists designed to visualize the world’s closeness to nuclear destruction, the duck-and-cover drills she experienced in her school, and regular talk of radiation poisoning. And although she admits it may sound “silly,” she’s not forgiven the government for “terrorizing a whole generation of children.” And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Schwartz’s chapter can provoke any number of conversations: the uses of sound to propagandize, to control, to injure, to inure; the ways particular cultural moments overtly or covertly, or even unintentionally, train us to respond to a variety of sensory stimulation; how popular culture—musical and otherwise—conveys the temper of the times, and here I think of Tom Lehrer, the Harvard-trained MIT mathematician whose satirical songs about everything from nuclear proliferation to pollution to the boy scout’s motto “Be Prepared” made him beloved among 1960s cynics. Along the way he also wrote a number of songs for the children’s television show “The Electric Company.” If Schwartz hasn’t considered Lehrer in another chapter of her study, she might look into his songbag; it speaks especially to the “high” culture demographic she focuses upon. Perhaps the most productive discussion that could be excited by Schwartz’s chapter is one that considers how to commandeer and employ the government’s 1950s tactics to alert and activate its citizenry to the apocalyptic situation that exists in relation to the environment. This is not an imagined event that depends upon the detonation of a nuclear device; it’s already upon us. It was forecast most famously by Rachel Carson in 1962, the same year we waited to see (and hear) whether Khrushchev or Kennedy would push the button. Perhaps it is time for us to listen to Carson once again and attune our ears to the devastation around us. Perhaps there’s still time to learn.