THE SONIC ASSAULT ON PUBLIC LIFE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- At two international sporting events at the Home Depot Center in nearby Carson, Calof., the soccer and rugby were great, but once again I came eardrum-to-amplifier with that recent nemesis of our sporting life, the sound track.
At every juncture in the event, the public address system went full blast with a virtual rock concert. We were barraged with noise and video effects. It was painfully loud much of the time.
What was once a purely athletic medium has turned into something else. The modern sporting event has become first and foremost an electronic multimedia show and only secondarily a game.
At the risk of reminiscing, it was not always so. Back in the early Cretaceous (or maybe the 1960s - memory fades), I managed to attend a few professional baseball, basketball and football games. They always began with the playing of the national anthem and some rudimentary public address announcements, and then there was the game. That was it.
There were no rock concerts, sound effects, fireworks or lightshows marring the contest. The game itself was the central focus.
Today, a trip to a sports venue involves enduring what is best described by that old word "cacophony."
Let's take a step back in time to understand how different this new thing is. When the Dodgers came to Los Angeles in the late 1950s, the Coliseum was used as a temporary playing field. There was a public address announcer to let us know the name of the next hitter or the identity of the relief pitcher coming into the game, but little else. It was information, raw and simple.
One fan made a name for himself by bringing a bugle to the games and, at tense moments, playing the six-note "Charge!" motif. Dodger fans learned to yell "Charge!" at the end of the trumpet fanfare and looked forward to it. That was pretty much the whole show when it came to sound effects.
The construction of Dodger Stadium in the early '60s allowed the team to install a modern sound system complete with an organ. Music was used sparingly - mostly to play the "charge" motif. It was left to the fans to figure out for themselves how to root. I suspect that any fan in those days would have found it insulting to be told by stadium management when to root and what to cheer.
That's all changed. At a minor league baseball stadium in the Midwest recently, much of the outfield wall was covered by a giant video screen. Spectators were subjected to a nearly constant barrage of visual effects, ads and directions on how to "root, root, root for the home team." A lot of noise was broadcast over the public address system, and it's not that it wasn't my kind of music (which runs to traditional forms) but that it was loud, loud, loud.
Our local minor league hockey team (yes, they are having a season) is called the Ice Dogs. When they score a goal, the lights strobe and swirl in a disco-like effect and the p.a. system blares out the song "Who Let the Dogs Out." The ongoing rock n' roll sound track is turned off only on those occasions when the game is going on. Other than that, it is noise, noise. noise.
It makes you feel like you're inside a giant pinball machine.
You might argue that attending the minors is a form of slumming. After all, they need gimmicks to bring in the fans. I wondered, though, if the big leagues still have big-league standards? It seemed worth finding out. I hadn't attended a major league game for years, so it was time for a return visit to Dodger Stadium, where Koufax and Drysdale, Padres and Perranoski used to pitch.
What a major disappointment the majors have become.
Dodger Stadium had adopted the same gimmickry as the minor league jukeboxes. The outfield wall has that same giant video screen. It instructs the fans on what to shout out. Back in the era when Koufax was pitching one-hitters, the fans managed to find their collective voice all by themselves, in a shared social event that was genuine. In this era where nobody worth mentioning pitches (at least for the Dodgers), the management tells us how to root. The wall tells us, too, projecting an unending barrage of unnecessary hints.
The one I find the most insulting is the command to make noise. The wall actually tells you, "Make noise." Just to provide the supreme level of irritation, there is a graphical rendition of a sound meter pulsating up and down.
You can't seem to escape it. Whether it's the majors or the minors, the key is cacophony and the view is of electronic visual effects.
It's actually a negative message the owners are sending.
This wholesale wiring of stadiums for sound and light should be recognized as an admission that the game by itself no longer holds the interest of the current generation. Pitching and hitting are not enough. The fans apparently need video-game effects and a sound track worthy of an iPod. The idea that management has to tell us when to make noise is a tacit admission that the Dodgers don't have enough charisma of their own to inspire a generation raised on video games.
The effect is also subversive of the idea that the game is played nine against nine. The stadium is now wired up to be the tenth opponent, while a willing public acquiesces in this descent into poor sportsmanship. It is not a message I like.
But underneath that message is a worse message.
The implication is that the people themselves have changed. It is another implicit admission by management that only the hyperactive speed of electronic games and synthesized sound tracks can keep the new generation interested in a real game that involves human motion. People raised on cable television and the instant feedback of electronic games seemingly can't wait more than a few seconds to obtain their positive strokes.
Perhaps baseball is just slow, one might ask. Are the new toys necessary to supplement the few occasional thrills that happen in a real game?
Aside from the fact that multiple generations managed to enjoy baseball before there were video games, what of hockey? It has constant motion, frequent violence and lots of action. What of world-level soccer? The action only stops for a few moments at infrequent intervals. Or what of rugby? The tournament I watched in Carson had a dozen of the top teams in the world playing one of the most exciting sports in existence, seven-a-side rugby football (take my word for it).
Even at those events, the management felt the need to keep us distracted during every spare moment. The second the action stopped, the p.a. system jumped in.
At one level, these comments are curmudgeonly: I don't like their taste in music. I don't like the constant assault of percussive noise. If I wanted to get thumped alongside the head repeatedly, I would go back to playing rugby. The constant amplified drumming at the sports stadium joins the low-bass rumble I have to endure in traffic from those over-amplified hip-hop-playing cars. It has become a blight on our society.
I think we are experiencing the coarsening of our aural environment, brought on by several decades of cheaply available, portable amplified music. Some people like it. What our society fails to understand is that lots more of us don't.
We went through an analogous with smoking. A social consensus gradually developed that public spaces ought to be smoke-free because the nonsmokers have the right not to inhale cancer-causing smoke.
We have been slower to develop a consensus on public noise, probably because the issue is newer - so new, in fact, there isn't any well-formed abolition movement such as that we saw against tobacco.
There may yet be a techno-fix developing for the problem of public noise. The new generation of iPods and imitators allow for music as a private experience, even in public places. Millions now are able to enjoy whatever music they like without disturbing others.
As our culture develops a social consensus that it's okay to listen to whatever you want but only if you don't disturb others, maybe sports stadiums and other public venues will take the hint.