There is something both great and awful, yet at the same time scary, offensive and exhilarating — about listening. How many activities can engender such a range of responses and emotions? Not many unless you count the reaction to the renewal of NBC’s “Whitney” or thoughts on the new Adam Sandler trailer “That’s My Boy” and feedback concerning the voice Mr. Sandler is using to play Dad to the movie’s title character. But who wants to get into all that now, anyway, even in the safe space confines of a user-friendly (one hopes) Internet blog.
The death of singer supreme Donna Summer this week got me thinking about listening, as opposed to my usual rants about being heard. At one time not so long ago, Ms. Summer’s sultry yet powerful voice played on many more radios than Rush Limbaugh’s ever did but, unlike Limbaugh, her voice was a clarion call to an emerging culture of people who were tired of the way things were and wanted the society to, if not change, at least be broadened enough to include something a little bit more colorful and different. That was, until, disco sort of imploded upon itself (sort of like what’s happening to Limbaugh at the moment), and created a backlash that sent Ms. Summer’s music underground until decades later when it was sort of okay to listen to her again in a nostalgic, albeit kitschy way.
Though I was no Disco baby, I never did lose my taste for a Summer record like “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park” or even “On The Radio” – all of which I listened to as a young person who, at least on the inside, felt different enough to hear what she had committed to vinyl (uh, yeah, vinyl) over and over again. I think this was due, in part, because it made me think and, more importantly, feel things I had never felt, or dared to feel before. For those not getting this last statement – use your imagination. For those still not getting it – phone a friend (girl OR boy). Or better yet – listen yourself to her very first hit international hit in the confines of your own study, crib or own safe space.
Music is one way to listen – or not to – but these days, of course, there are a lot more, partly because there are many more outlets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean there is more worthy stuff to hear. The challenge is – choosing what to listen to. Now I’m not one of those armchair liberals who only listen and look (the latter often a requirement of listening in the 2012 age) to those who agree with me – that would be boring. But that doesn’t mean that my version of listening requires me to watch what passes for news on Fox Broadcasting (I have Jon Stewart to siphon that off) or expose my diminishing hearing to anything within the smell zone that the cigar-chomping Limbaugh chooses to Rush at me. There are variations of the ilk I will watch or read – pundits or even bigots that make my blood boil at a little lower temperature (Peggy Noonan the former, or Tony Perkins of something called the Family Research Council, being the latter). This is just in the off chance I can learn something or be forearmed in the very off chance that they might, at some point, or even now, be listening to me. (A long shot, I know, but, like Bill Clinton, I try in my mind’s eye to still live in a little town called Hope).
I honed my listening skills as a young reporter, a field where you are pretty much forced to listen to everything in an effort to synthesize and tell the “real story” of an event to people who are depending on you for the truth. Well, at least that’s the way I learned it back in journalism school. Unfortunately, times have changed. Back then most writing and reportage was not about advancing an agenda but actually attempting to get all sides and then tell the most truthful version of it that you could in your own, inimitable fashion. This does and did not mean that many stories – both news and features – didn’t have a point of view. Of course they did. Since complete objectivity is a human impossibility it is a given that the retelling of anything will be synthesized in some way given that mere mortals are telling it. But as any decent filmmaker knows, POV doesn’t change the actual story elements – it merely shifts focus and moves the audience in a direction. It is then up to the audience to do what they will with the information given to them.
Or not given.
That’s a trick too. When no one is listening or reading or watching hard enough, merely arranging the same facts a certain way can cause people to interpret the story exactly the way you want them to. But that’s pretty much only in the case of people who are not really listening or at least are not practiced listeners. Which, these days, means pretty much everybody.
If we, as storytellers (professional or just plain folks like us), don’t listen we won’t have enough information to tell the story the way it is because we won’t be able to recognize that there are indeed missing details. And our version will become someone else’s faulty version – someone who is depending on us for the truth – and then they will retell it to yet another who creates still another version with a lack of proper information or facts that we provided them in the first place. One need only look at the political situation in the Middle East or the “true love” choices on “The Bachelor” to get confirmation of that.
Certainly, we all listen differently and most of us are too busy looking for either work or validation or love or money (sometimes all four) to be focused on getting to the bottom of anything. That is, unless the real story will provide us with one of the four (see “The Bachelor” or “Bachelorette”). In some ways, this was always the case. We humans usually don’t listen hard enough unless we can get something out of it. Or, to put it another way: “what’s in it for me?”
Stlll, the baseline was – how do I put this – a bit higher. There was a time when television news was required by law to present both sides. But that was abolished under Pres. Reagan’s FCC in 1987.
There was also a time when there was no:
– free porn on a small screen in your home whenever you wanted it
– 1,438,928 cable TV stations vying for your attention
– opportunity to listen to as much of Donna Summer, Adam Sandler, or anyone else you wanted without charge if you clicked the right set of keys on a laptop computer anywhere in the world.
Chair Translation — we’ve gotta raise the bar – just a tad, or even a hair. Or two. Even if it’s calmly trying to discuss and investigate whether the news story your friend posted on Facebook is little more than someone else’s faulty retelling of someone else’s rant. Or asking your friend, lover or family member to calmly tell you what they are saying and then stepping back and spending more than five minutes deciding for yourself how much you want to believe or whether you want to take at least another five or even ten minutes to do some investigating on your own. Which might then lead you to talk to someone else about this very situation. A situation (and NOT the “Jersey Shore” kind) this person might very well be interested in or have pertinent information about, but found that said story in the form you are advancing had never crossed their path. And that, in turn, can do or change all kinds of things. Or if not, forge the discovery of yet another “something else”. Something that might not have been heard before if someone wasn’t listening to you (or vice versa) in the very first place.
All of this can be done to the tune of the Donna Summer record of your choice if you so desire. Or perhaps, simply, in silence. I suggest the latter but certainly understand the former, depending on your mood.