Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Familiarity Theory of Sonic Annoyance

I visited my friend Glenn the other night and hung out on his screened-in back porch, drinking a few beers and listening to a Tom Petty boxed set. Despite the fact that the song playing at the time was one of my all-time Petty favorites, I got up and went inside and turned down the volume. Glenn asked me why I'd done it, and I said, "Familiarity Theory of Sonic Annoyance." Actually, I said about 500 words more than that and explained the entire concept in that elliptical way that comes over you when you've had a few beers. But that's what I meant, anyway.

Simply put, The Familiarity Theory of Sonic Annoyance states that any irritating noise is likely to become far more annoying once you know what it is. If you hear a random BLUGACHUGA THUMPACHAKA noise happening, sure, it sucks, but you can't personalize it. While it's moderately irksome that you can't figure out what it is, eventually you can resign yourself to the fact that it's just a generically irritating goddamn noise.

However, as soon as you know specifically what's irritating you, your mental awareness of irritation amplifies considerably. Random thumping annoys. Random thumping because that asshole teenager who lives next door is playing basketball at ten at night again infuriates listeners because they can immediately imagine even more things to be irritated about:
I would have been doing homework at this hour, at his age.
It's a school night, he should be in bed.
He's doing this on purpose.
He knows everyone hates this.
If he's this oblivious and inconsiderate about basketball, he's going to kill me/my child/my dog with a car when he turns 16.
Did he just brick that? He bricked that. Jesus, he fucking sucks at basketball, too.
The mere ability to recognize a noise enables you to personalize it, assign it motive and even invent secondary and tertiary levels of annoyance that come with it.

I remember my last apartment, where I lived under the apartment of an embarrassingly runtish compensatory-muscled man who had the same I-just-tossed-the-salad-of-a-diarrhea-wracked-cape-buffalo goatee as Jim Rome. He drove a cherry red Pontiac Trans Am Sport, which for anyone else would have been a bizarre turd-polishing additional expense, akin to spending $40 on the Collector's Edition Director's Cut DVD of Catwoman; but for him it signaled some sort of sublime order to the tacky universe. He deserved that car like he deserved being short, wearing skin-tight ribbed v-neck t-shirts and flexing when doing anything. Anything less would signal some karmic misalignment of white trash. His wife, or at least the mother he lived with, wore black sweatpants with the word JUICY written on the ass in glittertext. Her four-year-old son's face was always coated with an ample layer of food and mucus. They were the sort of family whose pictures you could use to recruit jihadists.

The day they moved in, someone on their balcony knocked over what I can only describe as a crate of soda. Because the balconies had slatted wood floors, the soda rained down and basically turned our cat into the Official Cat of Diet Slice. But that offense was secondary to the noise. Every evening, I stared malevolently at the ceiling of my living room — hoping the meth dealers who lived one stairwell over would murder them in their sleep and take the child and give him to a family of Irish travelers — while hearing a noise like, BOOPDOOPDOOPDOOP... BLANGACHANGA THWOCKTHWOCKTHWOCK SPLABBABIEEEELLO... CACHUN GACHUNG ADOMP. It was so loud that it legitimately frightened us if it happened without warning. We started having adrenal fight-or-flight responses to it. We had no idea what it was.

Eventually, I figured it out. Their toddler son would throw a tennis ball the length of the apartment, after which their seventy-pound labrador would run as fast as possible after it. Then the thirty-pound child would run after the dog to start over. Within days, this drove me absolutely insane. I left the apartment and walked around the parking lot for hours. I threw rubber balls against the ceiling and punched a hole in the drywall. Because any random noise is simply hellish; but once I was able to picture shitbearded Jim Runt and the whore mother looking on proudly while their son sprinted in an apartment with shoes on while playing fetch with an enormous animal, the sheer thoughtless cruelty, the disregard, the incredible selfishness overwhelmed me with a rushing noise in my ears every bit as violent and physically unsettling as the fetch noises themselves.

I must have been unbearable to live with. My rages at their noise easily must have irritated half as much as their noises themselves. I tried countless ways of dissipating my anger and trying to resolve the situation. I politely confronted the neighbors, and they ignored me. The apartment's management offered no solutions any more effective than mine. I remember getting very drunk and, in the dead of night, standing on top of his cherry-red "I'm so totally not 5'3, world"-mobile and gleefully pissing all over it. Still didn't help. Finally, as I neared some sort of mental collapse, we found the right house and moved.

The only downside to being out in the suburbs — well, apart from the commute, the lack of a sustainable economic center, the cookie-cutter architecture, the want of culture, the absence of urban planning, the moribund nightlife and the proximity to people who "moved out here to get away from all them spics and fags"* — is that random noises are now so unexpected that they take on slightly more significance. They're curiosities that get you, well, curious about what they are. Before, in an apartment, you might have just said, "They're inevitable," but now you say, "What is that?"
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* — A third of the houses in my neighborhood have a "Yes! On Amendment 2!" sign in front of them. The number of these people is depressing. You should click the link just to read the comments. Note that the first reply is an exquisite troll, because his expectation that Western European societies will "implode" for treating people equally sounds 100% authentic. You have to click around a bit to realize he's a liberal blogger. Also, seriously, yes, people move out to the suburbs because "The Cuban thing is becoming a problem," despite the fact that this town would basically be Nowhere, USA without over a century of Cuban heritage. Moving out of town to get away from Cubans in Florida is like moving out of San Francisco because of "all the Asians" or going to London and wondering why there are all these fucking Welsh and Scottish people around.
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This is why I vigilantly turned down my friend's stereo. Sure, there's a chance that someone listening likes Tom Petty and would be grateful to hear it. On the other hand, I could see myself lying in the dark, with "Breakdown" seeping through the walls.
Tom Petty, really? Are you listening to Gainesville's son because you went to UF? Maybe you can get really fucked up and in an hour or so start yelling, "Tiiiiiiiiiiiim TEEEEEEBOHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!"
I wish I could be sitting out there getting shitfaced and listening to Tom Petty right now.
Jesus, you can hear this on any classic rock station once a day, do you really need your own fucking copy to listen to at night?
Breakdown, go ahead give it to me/Breakdown, honey take me through the night/Breakdown, Im standing here, can you see? /Breakdown, it's all right/It's all right/It's all right... oh, God, I'm going to be doing this all night. All night. All niiiiiiiiighhhht.
They're doing this on purpose, aren't they? They're doing it to spite people. They're doing it to spite
me. Wait, get your head together. How do you know them? What started this? Are you to blame?
This is why, if you're going to stay up late outside drinking and listening to music, you should always pick something the squares around you have no hope of ever having heard before. Someone's going to grind their teeth if they can discern that you're listening to The Doors. Suddenly their sleepless minds focus on chilling visions of bongraping a bunch of shiftless hippies trying to reconcile really, like, groking the sixties, man, with, like, how they think affirmative action is reverse racism and it's about time whitey got something back, you know? Nobody's going to lose sleep singing along if you're staying up late listening to Cut Copy, because it's going to sound like undifferentiated noise to them. That's unfortunate, because Cut Copy rules, but all that means is the potential for your night's being awesome just increased.

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