When You Listen to Music, You’re Never Alone

On a late spring evening in 2015, at South Street Seaport, a square on the southern tip of Manhattan, hundreds of people slipped on headphones and slipped into their own worlds. It was a clear night, perfect for a stroll, but attendees weren’t interested in local shops and restaurants. They were too busy dancing silently to the music, tuning in—or tuning out—to a “silent disco.”

Daniel A. Gross | NAUTILUS

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

The silent disco is a concert that passersby can barely hear, and that attendees can customize with a flip of the switch. At this event, a wireless signal allowed dancers to choose their favorite of three playlists. Each pair of headphones covered the ears and gave off a robotic glow. “This is what we’ve been reduced to: dancing with ourselves,” one dancer told a reporter from The New York Times.

To some observers, the silent disco represents a peculiar form of shared isolation—a way to turn up the volume of modern alienation, to look social but remain solitary. “Headphones have been creeping into musical activities that once were social,” the writer and jazz musician Eric Felten lamented in the Wall Street Journal.

Silent disco, Felten added, is just one of many activities that are “atomizing” our society. “What a shame to turn the concert hall or dance club into another such lonely crowd,” he wrote. “These venues should be super—not anti—social.” Headphones may silence our city streets, runs the argument, but they also silence our social connections. To paraphrase those seminal pop philosophers from Athens, Georgia, the B-52s, we’re all living in our own private Idahos.

That, anyway, has been a refrain in sociological circles since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in the 19th century. Critics complained that the social fabric was being shredded when, rather than gathering in ballrooms to dance to Johann Strauss, we listened to recordings in our living rooms.

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