Songs in Conversation: Don’t Knock the Intimacy of Urban Sound

n.b. Songs in Conversation is a series of posts in which I write about two songs together. Sometimes the artists or thematic concerns makes the pairing obvious, for others the songs have somehow fallen together in my mind, answering each other in unexpected ways despite being from different times or genre.

tenements-HFor the last post I wrote in my gig as regular contributor to Sounding Out!, I explored the intimacy of urban life through the overlapping fields of sound emanating from various living and public spaces, and how they ideally call on city-dwellers to practice a form of empathy. In other words, in hearing what should be the very private arguments of couples and families, we should consider the ways our own “private” sounds bleed into the world around us.  Except when drawn into the dramas and celebrations of our neighbors in order to voice our own discontentment with the degree or frequency of the noise, typically urban-dwellers work to ignore noise, to tune it out and continue with life. But as I pointed out in “Living With Noise,” by bringing Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft” into the conversation, the intimacy of urban noise is not just a nuisance, but creates a community space, a way that news travels and values are reflected. Having lived in various Brooklyn apartments, both as a child and an adult, with similar airshafts, I know the experience well. It might have been the naturalness of such a soundscape in my upbringing that made a song like Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” so appealing to me—I mean aside from its catchiness and kid’s music-evoking enthusiasm for making and naming kinds of sounds.

“Knock Three Times” reached #1 on the Billboard charts in 1971, and thanks to my older sister’s obsession with Tony Orlando, it is a song that is definitely part of my childhood soundtrack. The song’s use of the urban sound environment, the soundscape of the apartment building, makes use of the intimacy described above to tell the story of the lonely upstairs neighbor sending inquiries of love to the woman that lives below him. Leaving aside (for the moment) the element of creepiness present in his stalkerish attention to her the sounds coming from her apartment (and his willingness, like too many love songs, to declare he loves someone he doesn’t really know), the song mixes just the right amount of novelty, pop sweetness, and urban cachet to entice the listener. It also makes clever use of the suggestiveness of sound, as when he sings “I can hear your music playin’ / I can feel your body swayin’.” This isn’t because he can feel the actual vibrations of her movements (her apartment is below his), but because the music he hears creates the sensations of dance in his imagination. The palpable yearning in the line, “Only in my dreams did that wall between us come apart,” seeks to explode the physical barriers to a more deeply connected life that do little to obstruct the passage of sound.


Tony Orlando & Dawn in the era of their TV variety show.

Look, the song is no guide to how you should behave with neighbors, even those you have a crush on, because stringing notes down to their windows that explain “how many times I saw you” is creepy as all heck, but I do like how it highlights the tension of closely spaced human bodies enclosed by walls that can only block off their sight, not the sounds (or as Duke Ellington explains when talking about “Harlem Airshaft,” the smells). In other words, the kind of intimacy that can be confused for romance is a common aspect of cramped urban living. It is a notion that serves as a source for romantic idealism, but also one that very obviously (at least these days) connotes potential for peril.  There’s some part of me that can’t hear to the enthusiasm in “Knock Three Times” and think of the countless dudes who in thinking they are being “romantic” end up harassing women. Suddenly, I am thinking of how the sounds a woman makes can make her the target for unwanted advances in a way that compounds the typical attention of just being present in public/shared spaces. From that perspective, that male gaze penetrates the opacity of walls by becoming a male listening. In other words, what the subject thinks are her private sounds become invitations for his proposition. He hears her through entitled male ears.

Thinking about the tension between an agreed on sense of boundaries and the guilty pleasure of getting to hear the private sounds of others got me thinking about another song about urban sound that is a direct appeal to ignore the endangerment of a neighbor.  In Suzanne Vega’s 1987 “Luka,” the song’s speaker is a child who lives above a neighbor he asks to ignore the sounds of “some kind of trouble, some kind of fight.” The song’s verses mostly focus on the way the child makes up excuses or modifies his behavior to cover up or avoid the beatings the neighbor ostensibly can hear in their apartment below. The chorus’s repetition of “Just don’t ask me what it was,” however, voices what is an unspoken agreement of urban living—not commenting on what we hear of our neighbor’s lives. Furthermore, in writing the song, Vega is highlighting the question of when we should violate that social contract for the greater good and the welfare of the potentially abused or exploited. As the child speaker sings, “It’s not your business, anyway.”

Honestly, I never gave the song much of a close listen until recently. I like a couple of Suzanne Vega’s records, but Solitude Standing is one I have mostly skipped. Nevertheless, the song’s popularity means I was familiar with the theme, even if I wasn’t sure if it was about an abused child or wife until I did a little research for this post. The song seems an odd fit for the Billboard 100 (where it reached #3) given the somber content and the banal artificiality of its late 80s folk-rock sound. Still, it resonated with listeners for some reason. I have to assume the song’s dilemma conveyed by Vega’s strangely evocative flat affect—which gives her every song a degree of the maudlin regardless of its subject—abrades the listener’s sense of not wanting to get involved that undergirds most urban interactions.  As the classic song by the Drifters, “Up On the Roof” reminds us, urban life is also about looking for a place to escape “the hustling crowd and all that rat race noise,” (btw, Tony Orlando & Dawn did a version of “Up on the Roof,” too), but sometimes the only way to escape noise is to ignore it, which bring its own dangers.

Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall” (1988) is similarly themed. It is an a cappella rendition of a cry of frustration with her inability to do anything about an abused wife she can hear nightly through the wall. Even choosing to not to ignore it and call the police is ineffective because “they always come late, if they come at all.” The conclusion of the song’s narrative suggests the deadly consequences of unarrested abuse for its victim, but also the effect on the community around them who have to deal with sleepless nights and the trauma of having to hear it with little recourse. Or worse, the knowledge that they did the typical urban thing and turned a deaf ear to it.

Then again, I can’t help but wonder if it is more common to overvalue our own sounds rather than undervalue the sounds of others. In Vibe’s Scott Poulson-Bryant meditation on what neighbors might think of his sonic shifts from Martika to the “soul-shouting diva-fied orgasmic melisma” 80s style deep house to the Rolling Stones in his essay “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own” suggests an awareness of neighbors’ judging ears. Is there another side to this phenomenon that has become inaudible, the flagrant broadcast of our personal sounds that challenges others to hear and somehow know us?

I miss the days of boomboxes. When personalized public music announced something crucial about ourselves and our world. I remember blasting tapes of KISS FM Master Mixes by DJ Red Alert or Chuck Chill-Out on the MTA on the way to middle school. I still appreciate when I can hear someone bumping summer’s jam from a nearby apartment window or passing car. Heck, my appreciation of Rhianna’s “Work” (sans Drake’s weak verse) is thanks to my own downstairs neighbor. LL Cool J’s classic “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” sings the praises of public music, rapping “Walkin’ down the street, to the hardcore beat / While my JVC vibrates the concrete” and “Cos I play everyday, even on the subway / I woulda got a summons but I ran away,” explaining how sound is used to shape urban environments, even as the state tries to curb and control that power. How urban folks manipulate and navigate their soundscape is a rich site for interrogating city life, and there have to be a lot of songs that assimilate cultural practice around that sound as if a natural condition of being.

I want to collect more pop songs that explore urban sound in a way that recognizes its interpersonal uses. Songs that recognize this phenomenon beyond simply hearing fighting through walls. I love a song like Jimi Hendrix’s underrated “Crosstown Traffic” whose instrumentation evokes the sounds of car traffic, but that is not the kind of song I mean. Plenty of songs sample or otherwise make use of urban sounds like Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and Boogie Down Productions’ “Sound of Da Police,” but I mean songs that make use of the varying overlapping fields of sound in their narrative, or that explicitly use urban sound as a metaphor. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” may mournfully evoke ghetto life, but in that same year “Knock Three Times” was trying to find some joy in those cramped conditions, by making use of its soundscape as a declaration of love (though obviously the former is a better song).

BoomboxCan readers think of other examples?  I can’t think of many more songs that fit the bill, but thinking about it did bring to mind the part of Eddie Murphy’s “Ice Cream Man” bit where he calls up to his mom to “throw down some money! The Ice Cream man is coming!” It reminds me of my own urban childhood, wanting to avoid going up and down a three-story walk-up, so bellowing over street noise in hopes my mom would hear me, my mom throwing down some change wrapped in a sock or handkerchief as the jingle of the Mister Softee truck got closer. It is a great example of how the layout of urban space makes us put sound to use in ways we might not if we could just run into some suburban ranch house and call to our parents.

Pop music seems like the perfect medium for considering and exploring the meaning and exchange of sound in closely-packed urban environments, especially since music itself has so long been a part of that soundscape. In “The Noisiest City on Earth? or, What Can the 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaint Maps Really Tell Us?,” Liana Silva describes how overlaying maps of city noise complaints upon demographic data provide insight into the priorities of urban planning and the results of a neighborhood’s cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. The questions she opens up about this data and its limits (and people’s “creativity” in dealing with noise that it cannot account for) also helps point the way towards how popular music might help to creatively deal with “noise” both as a cultural medium and a nuisance. The range in attitude of what accounts for “noise” can be made legible in musical accounts of those urban sounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s