The near-universal use of iPods in London is one of the things you notice immediately upon arrival here. Now that may sound strange in a place with Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye, but there it is. A large proportion of people in the street, on buses, and especially on the Tube are listening to something or other as they travel. If you were to look at just people in their 20s and 30s, the proportion would grow substantially—almost all young people have those tell-tale white buds in their ears.
I catch myself wondering sometimes what people are listening to. Some folks make it easy: the guy I saw last week with the Metallica t-shirt and the angry looking tattoos on his arms was easy to spot, others have the music on so loud that you can actually tell what their listening to from across the train. It’s a curious thing, and probably nosy in a way, but I do wonder what’s happening on these personal playlists all over town.
I’ve enjoyed watching how people ‘wire up’. Women especially find creative ways to incorporate the iPod wires into their scarves, so that you can hardly tell they’re listening to anything until you see the white dots in the ears. Some people wrap the lines from behind their heads, which looks a lot tidier, while more often than not folks will let the wires dangle in front, swaying as they walk down the street.
It was easy at first to be put off by iPod culture. I mean, really, in a city where so few people talk to each other at all it seems a bit excessive to add earphones to the mix. And there are also those times when you need to get past someone to exit a bus or train and they can’t hear you. At that point you’re really forced to push your way by, adding to the bumping and nudging that is so much a part of getting around in London. It was easy—probably far too easy—to judge these folks for tuning out of the world around them, for finding yet another way to avoid contact with other people, and for missing out on the odd life-changing conversation they might have with a fellow traveler. It was too easy to feel superior.
Then I remembered that I had an iPod myself.
I hadn’t actually forgotten—it was my Christmas present from Julie this past year. I have a hundred or so CDs loaded and ready to go, and also the pictures I’ve taken in the past 6 months or so—all of it is on that little unit, and it’s amazing. I try to limit myself to two iPod days per week. Of course I never listen to it in the morning, because that’s my commute time with Ian. But after I leave him at school on those designated days, I plug in and tune out and immerse myself in some songs that I love. I’ve been listening to the Killers’ second CD, and also the latest from the Raconteurs. There are other days when I miss the worship music from my last church and listen to some of that as I travel.
I wonder at times if people know what I’m listening to. I wonder what they would say if they knew I was tapping my foot to ‘Come, Now is the Time to Worship’, or ‘Grace Like Rain’, or ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’. Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m keeping this great music to myself (that’s the extrovert talking, always believing that other people want to hear what I’m thinking). But last week I was remembering an old song by Bob Bennett called ‘Madness Dancing’. The song was really about the few minutes he tried to set apart for God in the course of each day—how he was able to cut himself off from other cares, even for a short while. Here’s part of it, as near as I can remember:
In the middle of this madness I am dancing
Though I’m not sure why just now.
I tried to be sober, I tried to be logical
But could not stop my feet.
And no I haven’t turned off my mind
I know there’s evil all around.
But for now it's outside, and I am in my room
And joy is like a crashing tide...
Let the madness roll on like a hungry beast
No one will miss me for a half an hour at least.
That image of dancing in the presence of God, focusing on worship and separated from the worlds cares, has been a powerful one for me in the 20 years since I first heard this song. ‘Let the madness roll on like a hungry beast... No one will miss me for a half an hour at least.’ That impulse to retreat for a while is, well, wired into us. And while we all do something different in response to that prompt, I’m starting to see iPod culture in a new light. London is busy and noisy and fast and threatening all at once, and the people who leave their homes in the morning or their offices at night are just looking for a little retreat space. That they’ve found it in a little handheld device that drowns out the sounds of the city with music is probably a minor (secular) miracle.
Bob Bennett's song ends with this expression of pure joy:
A song came this morning and woke me
And as I listened, then I found
That I was not alone
I was standing, moving, dancing
Dancing on holy ground