Monday, August 5, 2013

The New. Guy. Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiies!


I have a problem with song lyrics: I just don't hear them.

You may be aware I wear hearing aids. My hearing loss isn't bad; it's just at a couple of frequencies that are important for recognizing consonants in speech, and which also tend to be overused in popular music. This is why being in a party where the music is turned up too high is actually painful for me: it's overloading my ears.

It's fun for me to blame the hearing loss on teaching one too many recorder lessons to large classes of fourth graders, but in truth, this has been going on for a very long time. I was first aware of the overload problem at my very first rock concert, when U2 played Autzen Stadium in Eugene in 1997. At the time, I didn't know the pain I was feeling was abnormal; I assumed everyone was feeling it, and used to it from attending dozens of concerts, probably already half deaf, and that if there was any abnormality in me, it was that I was a 36-year-old rock virgin not yet deaf enough to be immune to the jet engine level decibels assaulting my ears. (At subsequent U2 concerts, by the way, I wore earplugs, and enjoyed the experience far more.) In fact, I came to realize many years later, the discomfort came from hearing loss that was already in place. Thinking back now, it may have been there all my life.

How do I know this? Because I have never been able to learn song lyrics.

I've tended to blame other things, particularly the poor diction of pop singers, and there are certainly songs on which this is a valid criticism. Think "Blinded by the Light," as recorded by Manfred Mann's Earth Band. The chorus contains the words "revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night." I'm not alone in having heard something like this: "Wrapped up like a douche." Ironically, the cover for the single is a photograph of an ear with a mouth in its center:
I like to think that mouth is screaming, "Wrapped up like a WHAT? For God's sake take some diction lessons!" But maybe that's just me.
 
My point is that I've been mishearing, or just not hearing, lyrics all my life. There are times when this becomes a point of great amusement. Amy and I were quite taken with the new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, about life in a women's prison. The disturbing opening credits feature a rapid series of closeups of women's eyes and mouths, over a punk rock theme by Regina Spektor. Here's what I heard in that theme: "The animals, the animals, something something something something...the new. Guy. Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiies!" Over the closing credits, I saw, again and again, that the name of the song is "You've got time," which confused me, as I hadn't heard those words anywhere.
 
Except that I had. They're the chorus. Not "the new guy dies." "You've...got...tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime!" I can hear it in my head right now, and I'm still getting "the new guy dies," though if I force myself, I can sort of get "you've got time" from the same sounds. My misheard version kind of makes sense, since the main character is a newbie at the prison, and finds herself frequently in danger from other inmates, but led me to wonder every time I heard them why it was the new GUY who dies. Even if one considers "guy" to be a generic term, "girl" would make much better sense. Perhaps, I reasoned, this was an already existing song, and they couldn't convince Regina Spektor to change the lyric.
 
It never occurred to me until Amy pointed it out during the thirteenth and final episode that maybe, just maybe, I was hearing it wrong. Even when I was wearing my hearing aids.
 
And I've been doing it since childhood.
 
I didn't hear a lot of pop music as a child. My parents never played any recorded music in our house--weird, as both of them are musicians, and my mother was a music major and professional organist--and even if they had, it wouldn't have been pop. There wasn't even any jazz in our small record collection, just a handful of classical albums and a bunch of children's records. We never had the radio on in the car, either. When I finally started exploring music I liked to listen to, I had a bias toward instrumentals, and mostly preferred--this is so embarrassing--easy listening. I did hear popular music at school, where it was played, much too loudly for my tastes, during lunch hours, usually in places where I was trying to read whatever book I was currently escaping into. And then there were dances, where the music alternated between big hair rock groups and disco. And I just couldn't get the lyrics.
 
I suppose one problem I had was that I didn't like most of the music I was hearing, so why bother trying to learn the lyrics? Another was that I didn't have album covers to refer to, though the practice of printing lyrics on record jackets or sleeves was still pretty sporadic in the 1970s. These are still excuses, though: most of my contemporaries heard and learned the lyrics. Even when I was listening, I couldn't hear most of the lyrics.
 
I heard a lot more popular music now than I ever did in my youth. Some of it I do listen to intentionally--my taste in music has evolved to be far more inclusive and eclectic--but mostly I'm just exposed to it without much say in the matter. It is, I have learned, far easier to perform repetitive exercise to music with a solid beat, especially in a class setting, so I hear a lot of trainer playlists. This stuff is turned up to a level at which I should be able to hear those troublesome consonants, even without my hearing aids, and particularly with Body Pump, it's the same list for three months at a time. I can hear these songs two and three times a week, and never understand a word--or, as with "You've Got Time," mishear the words and then wonder how any sane person could write such nonsensical lyrics.
 
I've spent a lot of time now describing my problem with song lyrics. Now it's time to make it real: this is where I'm worried about turning into my an old man.
 
I've known many elderly people in my life. A large number of them have had hearing issues. For the most part, they're good about asking people to repeat things they don't hear properly. But there are some who do what I have done with song lyrics, puzzling out a meaning to a partially-heard remark that is bizarre, offensive, or utterly opposed to what was actually intended. Then they take this seriously, and become offended, angry, confused, and react out of those emotions, without stopping to consider that the problem may be not with what is being said, but with how it is being heard. I've been in conversations in which someone I care about became quite upset with me because he or she heard something completely different from what I actually said and took it seriously.
 
I'm not ashamed of the changes age is bringing to my body. I keep my hair short so I'm not tempted to comb it over my receding hairline. My hearing aids are small, but I readily point them out to people. And sometimes I will put a hand to my ear, lean in, and ask to have something repeated, because there is absolutely no way the words I just heard are the same words that were spoken by the other person. I may have to hear them more than once: even with the hearing aids, it's sometimes hard for me to decipher the sounds that make it all the way down my ear canal and into my brain.
 
I know how frustrating it is to have to repeat oneself, how doing so strips remarks of their spontaneity and humor. I'm soft spoken, and especially during my years in ministry, had to repeat myself a lot in my conversations with elderly parishioners. Being on the other side of it, though, I've become much more sensitive to the importance of being properly understood, of communicating clearly "you've got time" rather than "the new guy dies."
 
So please, if you're talking to me and I lean in and ask you to repeat yourself, be patient with me. And if you're one of those people who, when handed a microphone, waves it off because you don't need one of those things, trust me on this: you do. There are a growing number of adults in every audience with hearing loss. Our nation is aging, and many of those my age and older spent a significant portion of their youth at rock concerts or personal listening devices cranked up well past the safety level. So please be accommodating in your public speaking, patient in your more intimate conversations, and when your time comes, be quick to question your interpretation of words that can't possibly be right. If you're going to have an earworm, wouldn't you rather it was "you've got time" than "the new guy dies"?

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