On Friday night I was travelling home after a few days in Zurich. Waiting for my plane in Zurich airport, Bats by Uncluded came up on the random playlist I was listening to. I hadn’t realised Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson had collaborated. I was immediately gripped as what had been background listening suddenly grabbed my full attention, immersing me in the music in a way that was involuntary. I couldn’t help but listen to it a few times in quick succession, with the lines below gripping me in a way that is hard to get into words. As I often do, I looked up the lyrics and reading them alongside the music only added to the power of the song.
In times of death and disorder
You look for shooting stars
In the reflection of the water
And you open the gifts that you didn’t expect
On the birthdays of the dead friends that are stuck in your head
Like love, and hugs and songs and rage
And the keys that you needed to unlock your heart’s cage
The ability to put the pen back to the page
The heat beneath your feet to propel you on stage
The beat that completes your shit these days
Yeah the beat that completes your shit these days
(The beat that completes your shit these days)
I wasn’t able to download the track before getting on the plane so I was delighted to resume immersion once I arrived at Heathrow, listening to it multiple times on my journey home before my headphones ran out of battery. I couldn’t get the phrase “love, and hugs and songs and rage” out of my head and fleetingly wondered if this might be the second tattoo I’d been thinking about for a while. I continued listening the next day but the effect was subtly diminished, the song felt flatter and my attention was more deliberate and less voluntary.
Another 48 hours later and I realised when listening to it that these lines were no longer standing out to me, manifesting in little more than an awareness that I had missed something. But if I listened closely, I still missed it because ‘something’ was a response these lines provoked in me rather than the lines itself. It was what I’d call the resonance opened up within me by the music, the interplay of associations and responses that emerged from my immediate relationship with it. The music gripped me and moved me and changed me. But now it was gone. After 48 hours.
This isn’t an unusual experience. I’ve had many conversations with people about obsessively listening to the same track until it becomes flat. I suggest this is mining resonance to the point of exhaustion i.e. taking advantage of our immediate control over the resonant item to repeat the experience, with the cost of diminishing effect as the resonance evaporates in the fact of its instrumentalisation. It changes our relationship to what resonates and involves exercising subjective control over what is otherwise outside us, eviscerating resonance by turning an external relation to a piece of art into an internal relation to an experience we are choosing. If we have to wait until something is on the radio or on TV then we can’t exercise this control. If the resonance is generated through live music, it remains something with a transcendent dimension to which we have to open ourselves up. If it is something we can repeat on demand, we risk emptying out the experience and destroying precisely what brought us to it in the first place.
Reflecting on this has left me wondering about binge watching. It can be an experience in which we are gripped by what we are watching, immersed so completely in the narratives of an alternative universe that to leave it feels fleetingly impossible. It can also be something hollow and compulsive, repeated with a grim but unspoken awareness that we are being nudged into continued engagement by the architecture of Netflix. What makes the difference? I would suggest it is resonance and that what we call binge watching or immersion isn’t just about consuming a cultural production, it’s how we relate to that cultural consumption. The ontology of this relation is subtle and streaming platforms simultaneously treat us as sovereign decision makers and hollow selves to be moulded. The phenomenology of cultural bingeing is much more complex than either characterisation can grasp.