Along with Tia DeNora's Music in Everyday Life, published in the same year, Michael Bull's first book-length enquiry into the uses of mobile sound technologies (Sounding Out the City, 2000) signalled an important shift in the sociological study of music consumption. Inspired in large part by the work of Adorno, they both combined a willingness to analyse the role of music as a resource in the constitution of the self with an empirical focus on routine acts rather than the sort of subcultural gestures favoured by scholars in media and cultural studies. Since then, the commercial success of MP3 players, with their unprecedented storage capacity, connectivity and flexibility of use, has done much to validate Bull's framing of the relations between music, self and society in terms of technological mediation and public spaces. Based on a survey of more than 1,000 early iPod users, Sound Moves sees the author pursue his interest in the interpretative potential of mobile listening as part of a wider analytical project to bring the auditory dimension to the foreground of contemporary urban living.
Far from yet another thinly disguised panegyric to the Apple brand and the marketing nous of its charismatic leader, Sound Moves spends little time on the more evidently iconic character of the device itself, preferring instead to examine 'the dialetics of iPod culture', characterised by greater possibilities for the auditory control of space and experience on the one hand, and by further distanciation from the immediate social environment on the other. By following the iPod wherever its users' accounts take him--from the home to the office, in the street or the car and the countless other non-spaces in between--the author assembles a comprehensive inventory of the spatial and social micro-strategies deployed in order to maintain a sense of continuity amidst the contingencies of daily life. In this perspective, the iPod comes to represent the material incarnation of an immaterial work of constant emotional and cognitive self-management; a technology perfectly tuned, and consequently tuning its users, to the requirements of what Bull terms hyper-post-Fordism.
Throughout Sound Moves, the pleasurable and empowering aspects of listening on the move are systematically put in contrast with vignettes intended to convey the more dystopian flipside of 'auditory privatisation'. To take one of the most striking examples, the quasi-filmic sensation commonly experienced when watching one's visual environment being magically animated to an iPod's soundtrack leads Bull to argue that such aestheticising effect potentially threatens the cosmopolitan ideal of self-realisation. In the life-world of many users, direct encounters with otherness are found relegated to the safer status of a fleeting on-the-go digital playlist, with World music favourites thrown in for good measure before being discarded or overwritten. One might see the same logic of neutralisation at work in the hollow, featureless but unmistakably wired for sound silhouettes that once served as the visual signifier of the iPod experience.
One of the book's greatest achievements lies in its ability to defamiliarise for the reader a mode of music consumption that is not only easily taken-for-granted, but also subject to two powerful discourses: naive techno-utopianism and the perception of music as an intrinsically positive social resource. By the end, it is hard not to subscribe to Bull's argument that 'the warmth of privatised and mediated communication produces the "chill" that surrounds it' (p107). The compelling virtual dialogue that Sound Moves weaves between iPod users and a range of social theorists, from Simmel to Sennett, testifies both to the effectiveness of large-scale online surveys and the enduring significance of critical theory for making sense of the values and social implications embedded within even the smallest of media technologies.
Hansen, Jerome. "Michael Bull, Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience." New Formations 67 (2009): 159+. Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Nov. 2009.
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