Aural Injustice

If hell is other people's stereos, then bring on the lawsuits.

Published June 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

to live is to suffer and then die. Duh. And what is the cause of all this
suffering? Other people. Other people spill drinks on our clothes, forget
our birthdays, shoot guns at us, steal our newspapers, break our hearts,
spray food with pesticide, don't return phone calls and stand in front of us
at rock shows wearing ten-gallon hats. And what should be done to these
thoughtless meanies? In some places in the world, fingers
are chopped off or eyes are gouged out in the village square. But in
America, we have a far more torturous, nerve-racking site of justice: the
court of law.

In Miami, jurors are currently being selected in what is, to my mind, one of
the biggest hell-is-other-people lawsuits in history. Something like 60,000
flight attendants who never smoked are holding tobacco companies such as
Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds liable to the tune of $5 billion for ailments related to repeated exposure to second-hand smoke. These
frequent fliers are living out one of the most basic human fantasies: revenge. You made me suffer, now you will pay.

Since every last inconvenience we face results in stress, and too much
stress can lead to heart disease, and the cause of every death is always,
eventually, heart failure, then I say, Let the lawsuits begin! Let's subpoena
Jehovah's Witnesses for ruining all those stress-reducing naps! Haul
telemarketers before a judge to justify their dinner-wrecking jobs! File
class actions against those shoe-ruining jerks who toss gum willy-nilly on

But the one thing as insidious and stressful as being held captive to other
people's cigarettes is being held captive to other people's stereos. I
think those flight attendants might be onto something. We all know that
noise pollution is just as detrimental as pollution pollution. With that in
mind, I'm thinking of staging similar legal protests against the purveyors of
aural dreck.

For starters, I think I'll sue my neighborhood supermarket. Because it
seems like every time I enter its refrigerated cavern, I am held hostage to
the piped-in trauma of R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People." Don't they know what
this song does to me, not to mention my blood pressure? Do they realize what
it means to not only be force-fed the words "shiny happy people" 3
million times in a row, but the fact that the shiny happy people are
holding hands makes me want to brain my fellow shoppers with 12-packs of Bud?
Or how irked I can get when some pushy woman slams her cart
into mine just as Michael Stipe is mocking me with drivel like, "Everyone
around, love them, love them"?

And howsabout suing the cab drivers of the world who, I swear, in order to
receive their licenses, must take an oath to search through the radio dial
and hunt down the absolute worst station possible. Have you ever heard a
good song in a cab? Me neither. Last week's winner: Paul McCartney's new
one, "Flaming Pie." I believe that I shaved actual minutes off my life
expectancy just contemplating the horror of hearing one of the most talented
individuals of the 20th century destroy what's left of his lingering
reputation making lines like "I don't care how I do it!" or "I took my brains
out and stretched 'em on the rack" sound absolutely true.

I also wouldn't mind suing Marilyn Manson for actual damages of $2.95
because I dropped a glass the first time I saw his ugly mug on TV. Or Hank
Williams Jr. for those "Monday Night Football" commercials of his. Or
Courtney Love for confusing me (mental anguish). Or even my beloved Meat
Puppets, because this is business, not personal, and I'll never get my
hearing back from one of their deafening concerts three years ago.

But you know who could really use a good dose of legal medicine? Hanson!
These three adorable brothers from Tulsa, Okla., with their marvelous, uplifting
single "MMMBop," are causing me more than their fair share of mental duress.
Now I know what you're thinking. Why begin litigious action against these
beautiful Okies? They've got soul! And cheer! That song just soars! This,
friends, is the problem. I can't go more than two hours without putting that
song in the CD player. I'mmm addicted to "MMMBop"! And what do we do with
addictive substances in this country? Outlaw them! Or at least regulate
their consumption. And when that doesn't work (see cigarettes, once
again), we sue! What if this song invades our playgrounds? What if children,
hearing it, start thinking their lives will be filled with glorious harmonies
and happiness? What kind of example is that? Because when musical smack
like "MMMBop" comes on the radio, everything else -- the traffic, the summer reruns,
and all the other other-people impositions -- seems that much more shoddy and dreary and sad by comparison. That song is yet another product of the all-powerful
disappointment lobby -- and what is disappointment if not a cancer of the

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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