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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A magical ride

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I know I should say something like "I love my mom, and I love world peace," but honestly, I don't think there's anything I love more than riding my bike with while listening to music. I love putting music to my life, and I love attaching certain songs to certain places: I first heard Wilco sing "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" when I bought Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at Soundscapes, and will forever think of Euclid as the avenue that Jeff Tweedy "assassins down" and Toronto as the "big city blinking" that he hides out in. The first thing I did when I last went to Montreal was get on my bicycle, put on my headphones, and listen to Final Fantasy's "This is the Dream of Win and Regine," enjoying the late afternoon light turning the city orange as Owen Pallet warned me that "Montreal might eat its young, but Montreal won't break us down."

This behaviour might easily be criticized, as many see wearing headphones as a way of disengaging yourself from the world by blocking out the city and the strangers and wrapping yourself up in an impenetrable shield of sound (and, uh, it's unsafe). This is the culture you curse when there is a cute stranger on the subway that you don't say hi to because of the earbuds, because "what are you listening to?" is even more intrusive than "what are you reading?"

Walkmans and iPods are not just anti-social, they also prevent people from engaging with or even looking at their environments. The headphones are a distraction, something to keep you occupied while you get from one place to another. They function as the pedestrian equivalent to the subway tunnel that connects two points and removes the need to think about what is in between them.

There are, of course, retaliatory actions being taken. Janet Cardiff, for example, is an artist whose project The Missing Voice (Case Study B) is an audio-guided historical narrative walking tour that leads you around London, England. The audio track includes quotidian sounds, such as honking cars, causing you to look for things in your surroundings that may or may not be there. Similarly, Emmet Connolly's walking tour, Walk/Shuffle, is a simple series of directions played in shuffle mode, so that participants end up with a random set of directions guiding them through their environment. These two pieces focus on an individual's interaction with the city — other projects use personal audio as a way to highlight the potential for shared experience. In her "iPod Experiment," Michelle Chua spent a day wordlessly plugging strangers' headphones into her iPod and plugging her headphones into theirs.

On an extreme level, the public high jinks outfit known as Improv Everywhere use personal audio to create a huge shared experience with their "MP3 Experiments" — anyone is welcome to download a specific mp3, gather in a certain place at a certain time, press their play buttons when the signal is given, and then follow the instructions given to them over their headphones — like "Simon Says" with an invisible Simon.

This variety of projects shows a second way of conceptualizing iPod culture, illuminating how your headphones can add to a situation rather than just distract you from it. And that is exactly how I feel when I bike with headphones. Sure, there's an inherent narcissism in providing the soundtrack to the movie of your own life.

But just like in film, music influences the mood of the scene. I've listened to Le Tigre, loudly, while angrily biking up the big Bathurst hill to pick up things left behind at an ex-boyfriend's. I've listened to Julie Doiron sailing across Queen Street in the rain feeling artful and tragic and damp. I often listen to The Books when I find myself cycling along Yonge Street so the mish-mash music-and-sound mingles with the sounds the city is making and I feel like an important part of the downtown throng. And at the same time, the music I listen to structures the actual travel itself. I can measure distance by songs, and I will forever think fondly of the time when I could get from my house to a certain boy's house in the exact amount of time it took for Joni Mitchell to sing "All I Want" (which begins with "I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling traveling traveling" and ends with "I want to knit you a sweater, I want to write you a love letter, I want to make you feel better, I want to make you feel free").

Music on the go is not unique to cycling, though. The subways are full of people with headphones; people wear them when they walk; I wear them for protection against soft-rock radio when I go to the grocery store. And listening to music while driving is hallowed and enshrined in North American culture. So what makes bicycling different? In contrast to being on foot, biking leaves you much more alone in the city. The streets and subways are social places: people talk to you and you talk to them, you get asked about directions and spare change and what time the TTC stops running. When you put on headphones, you really do shut all that off.

On a bike, however, you're not expected to engage with people in the same way. On a bike, you're moving too fast and your path is unpredictable — you are your own entity soaring along the roads, and being able to choose the music for that just makes it even more so. At the same time, you are more in the world than motorists are. Cars are not just vehicles, they are places, they are rooms, and the car stereo is more a part of the car than it is a part of you. And cars follow the rules. Cyclists often don't — we go the wrong way on one-way streets, we take the sidewalks when we have to, we get off the grid and ride through parks and plazas. On a bicycle you are free to make your own route; you and your travels etch out a unique path atop the city. Adding music makes this even more true — headphones help turn the city into a palimpsest of places and associations and sounds and songs.