Chained to the Rhythm: Katy Perry’s Disco Balls and How We Listen

 

Katy Perry has placed these chained disco balls in various parts of the globe (here). Each of them contains a headphone jack where one can listen to what is being dubbed as her new single. The title of this track?

“Chained to the Rhythm.”

It’s poetic really. We have been chaining people to rhythm for well over a century. 1889 saw the inception of these sort of devices. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton describe phonograph machines in their wonderful history of disc jockeying:

“Coin-operated and with stethoscope-like ear tubes, it was much like the listening posts in record stores today, except it was the size of a small nuclear reactor. Edison made some similar machines and wheeled them out at state fairs, where up to ten curious folk would plug in and grin at each other. However, these primitive contraptions never grew beyond a novelty.”

Amplification was able to take these primitive contraptions into their next evolutionary form – the jukebox. We were not chained by a stethoscope anymore. Or are we?

Headphones might resemble stethoscopes but they attach to feathery devices, a laptop being the heaviest among them. Mobility is the rule. Except now here we are, connecting to a disco ball chained in place and taking a picture of it.

It’s hard to look past Perry’s act as more than a promotional tool. Disco balls that play music are worth talking about – a picture here, a tweet there. Sooner or later Katy Perry releases a new album and the disco balls disappear. A nifty marketing trick we’ll say.

But to interrogate these disco balls is to find a deep history of holding the listener to a spot. Even before the technology, concert halls held listeners to their seats. Even after the technology, headphones act as umbilical cords that hold even the fastest runners at the mercy of music from their phones. Perry’s disco balls operate from the same notion.

The lightness of an auditory experience needs weight, otherwise it will be fleeting. We need to capture and hold music down. Likewise, we are in constant movement and stimulated by sounds on all directions. Figuring out what to pay attention to is a large undertaking. To minimize chance we chain ourselves to the rhythm – that way we know where to direct our ears.

When we finally direct our ears and lose ourselves to the music, we will know it’s because we kept ourselves firmly planted.

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