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February 1-8, 2006

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Pete Townsend

Can You Hear Me?: Pete Townsend symbolizes rock-induced deafness.

Now Hear This

Earphones hurt so bad but feel so good


By Sara Bir

Some of the most powerful, disturbing images in Goya's career--the god Saturn devouring the adult body of his son; the menacing head of a solitary black dog--were inspired by hearing loss. At 46, an unspecified illness rendered Goya deaf for the rest of his life. The ringing in his ears was so bad that it drove him to fits of despair and near insanity, states that he channeled through his brush and pen onto canvas and paper.

That was over 200 years ago, way before rock concerts; very few everyday sounds in Goya's time were intense enough to expedite tinnitus. But if hearing loss inspires creative brilliance, don't be surprised when, 10 or 20 years from now, there's a burst of intense and moving art from music lovers of the tech generation.

As the popularity of portable audio systems like iPods and MP3 players increases, so do warnings of the damage earphones can inflict on our hearing. Not that earphones are anything new; what's different is the technology. No so long ago, a Walkman only offered the songs of the CDs or cassette tapes that you had handy. Compare that to an iPod, which is smaller, sleeker and can hold several thousand songs. This makes it easier to put the thing on shuffle and pop in your earphones while working out, riding the bus or trying to look occupied at work. And unlike a Walkman, you can set the volume of an iPod or MP3 player up way high before the sound quality suffers.

The smart thing is to use portable audio systems in moderation, without the volume cranked. But since when has the smart thing been the fun thing? Not all music sounds good loud, but rock music sounds best loud. Rock and loud go together like pizza and beer, like coffee and cigarettes. And within rock, distorted guitars sound absolutely divine when loud. Wanna hear God talk? Put on Sonic Youth's "Expressway to Yr Skull" or the Who's "Disguises" or My Bloody Valentine's "Honey Power." Then put on your earphones and turn it up--as Nigel of Spinal Tap would say--to 11. Better than drugs, my friends, and it's totally legal, though perhaps just as foolish in the long run.

Music critics will, when especially fond of the intricacies of an album, praise it as a "perfect headphones jam." It's music that you want to get inside of, music that, like a hothouse flower, thrives in a closed system. I reserve my headphones jams for my Walkman, which I wear when I run; I am clumsy and reluctant to invest in a portable audio system when I know it will be clogged with sweat and subjected to random collisions with the sidewalk. Walkmans cost $20 and take a beating, plus I can play all of my favorite mix tapes on them. The sound quality is bad, though, and on the best songs I am left with no option but to max out the volume. This is good for my body--it makes me run faster and longer--but bad for my poor helpless ears, which express their discontent by seeping sticky wads of puke-brown wax the next day.

That pukey wax is the result of clunky, foam-covered headphones; audiologists agree that bud-style earphones, the kind that go directly into the ear, threaten to cause more damage than external earphones. External headphones don't sound as good, and they look dorky. You can always be like me--a cheapskate inadvertently stylin' it retro-chic--or you can simply turn it down. Which is not easy. Turning down the volume is like passing up the last few bites of ice cream; at the time, it seems totally harmless.

But if you don't want to believe an audiologist, believe Pete Townshend. He is, after all, both cooler than you and deafer than you. "The point I'm making is that it is not live sound that causes hearing damage," he wrote on his blog shortly after Christmas. "Earphones do the most damage." That's correct: Long-term exposure to your personal audio system is more dangerous than a lifetime of Coachella festivals sans earplugs.

Will we ever learn before it's too late? Will we squander a lifetime of hearing on two or three decades of lusciously loud songs? I'd be delighted to live to be 80, and I'd like to hear whatever music our mess of a world has to offer then. But I may well be stumbling around with a walker, deaf to everything but the self-contained distortion permanently blossoming in the ears I raped in blissful, youthful folly. I just hope my tinnitus sounds something like My Bloody Valentine.

Visit www.hearnet.com to learn more about rock, hearing loss and Pete Townshend. For Sara Bir's favorite headphones jams, link through to her blog.


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