In an Unfocused World, “Listening Bars” Demand Our Complete Attention

“Remember,” I warn my husband, “nothing above a whisper, or they’ll kick us out.”

We’ve been wading through the delirious Tokyo crowds for an hour, and now, at last, we shuffle up to the rough wooden door of Bar Martha—a “listening bar.”

Inside, by tawny lamplight, a subdued host runs through the rules. We may sit at the bar and listen to the records. We may nod to the bartender when we’re ready for another manhattan or negroni, but we may not chat, we may not pull out our phones, we may not do anything that could distract from the enjoyment of the music.

And such music. From a 6,000-album trove at one end of the bar, a studious fellow draws Al Green, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner—the music is king, and we are listening serfs. Our job is merely to point at suitably boozy items on the menu and enter a sonic reverie. Sharply dressed locals light Seven Stars cigarettes and nod along in collective peace to Marvin Gaye and R.E.M. We drop away from the 21st century—a blissful respite.

Then I grow confused by my own enjoyment. What is this? What is this quietly rhapsodic state? It comes to me as Ella Fitzgerald’s vibrato pulses through the vintage Tannoy speakers: in a world where signals are always drowned by noise—a world where feverish egos push us always to interrupt, to comment, to opine—here’s a cloister that demands our focused attention. Here at the listening bar, for a few precious hours, the noise of our online world is vanquished, and a signal, a voice, a line, a note is given its full due.

That all this is managed with a crowd present underlines the magic of the dim tavern. It proves to me that, somewhere in the back corners of our frantic lives, we still crave the chance to home in.

Earlier that night, lost in the neon hum of Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, Kenny and I were drawn into an entertainment of another kind: a pop-up shop where Meta’s new augmented reality headset could be beta-tested. We donned plastic hoods, and the shop became a video game: aliens broke through the showroom walls, and showers of gold coins bounced off the edges of dull reality as we fizzled hundreds of invaders. It was impossible to ever be bored in such a space; life had gone electric. And this frenetic arena was, of course, closer to our day-to-day reality than any staid listening bar.

To be awake and breathing in 2024 is to be pummelled by a deluge of stimulus. The firehose of content issuing from our screens is meant to make us happy, make us satisfied. But in fact we often become confused, paralyzed, diluted. We experience what the psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice”: a glut of options leaves us discontent with everything. One hundred and eighty-five soda pop varieties were meant to deliver the American Dream, but the smorgasbord only depresses. Nowhere is this problem more evident than in the world of music, where albums (once coveted and safeguarded) are always a tap away. When, back in the 2010s, I chatted with the co-founder of Songza, Elias Roman, he told me “the oppression of choice” was what he thought about most when he went to work. In fact, Songza’s rapid success (it was acquired by Google in 2014) hinged on the app’s ability to hold nausea at bay as we launch into the listening sea.

Singular, focused attention is distressing today. We’re too cynical (or perhaps just too nervous) to devote ourselves to any one thing.

We know we’re in danger of not just seasickness but drowning. And a fleet of supposedly helpful products claim they can silence the noisiness tech has wrought with… more tech. The Calm app, for example, provides guided meditations and somnambulistic “sleep stories” to millions of paid subscribers. Any pain point is an opportunity for entrepreneurs—and the paranoia about rapid change that all tech produces only highlights this opportunity. We are terrified of the very noise we’re drawn to. And whether by meditation app or yoga video or a TikTok glamorizing some influencer’s clean productivity, we swallow more salt water, hoping it will slake our thirst.

It doesn’t. Instead, we learn that every corner of life must be fed into the feed. Our phones teach us to scroll past each other’s deepest traumas and joys, to merely glance at the triumphs and tragedies that should really define our lives. We cannot pause, no matter the content. There’s something else to take in: another story, another reel. Dramas are consumed while we live-stream commentary. Lectures are delivered as attendees LOL in chat windows. Even movies, the greatest attention-grabbing medium yet concocted, are prefaced by a weak plea to the audience: do not pull out your phones. Singular, focused attention is distressing today. We’re too cynical (or perhaps just too nervous) to devote ourselves to any one thing.

In fact, streamers like Netflix now talk about the need for “second screen content”: content designed to be peripherally consumed while the “viewer” scrolls through their phone. Others describe shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Emily in Paris—dreamy miasmas of inoffensive amusement—as a form of “ambient TV.” It’s been several years now since researchers found that most young people watch TV while consuming social media on their phones.

None of this, of course, is natural. And none of it is by chance. Advertising-fuelled media (as opposed to the older sort fuelled by sales to consumers) finesses itself into geysers of content. Mass attention is harnessed and packaged, then sold off to advertisers like barrels of oil. In such an arrangement, sustained attention has far less value, but flitting attention is worth a great deal indeed. Much can be made of a two-second glance. By contrast, any content geared toward narrowing attention, or slowing it down, will wither and die, for it deserves no advertisers.

So the content that bulks up our days—the songs and shows and news—must race to the bottom of the effort ladder. Anything that doesn’t dazzle is discounted. Nor do we consumers complain as marketers hijack our few spare hours for their mercantilism. We believe the end is inevitable: an inflation of content must produce a deflation of attention.

The great media critic and educator Neil Postman once warned that we are “amusing ourselves to death.” Writing in 1985, he was worried about the growing dominance of television. Our crisis is a continuation of his, multiplied across new screens. Our lives grow impoverished, and time is shaved into smaller slices of distraction: emails become DMs; blogs become TikTok captions. And at each stage, there’s a promise in the form of dopamine, a promise that our egos will be satisfied if we just jump to the next flashing message, the next…

What do we toss out along the way? What’s the hidden benefit we once gained from a bit of sustained attention? When we subdue those nervous instincts and prioritize signals over noise, deep thought can emerge, for one; we become responsive instead of merely reactive. Researchers confirm that creativity thrives, too, where noise is diminished. We gain a sense of freedom and grow attuned to our surroundings. In short, we build a richer life. How strange to realize that access to infinite content has weakened, rather than strengthened, those experiences. Our thoughts, opinions, and media diets are diluted by this morass of what we used to call culture and we now call “content.” I need only glance at my most-played songs on Spotify to confirm that the extraordinary music library buzzing beneath my fingertips is more an echo chamber than a portal to discovery. It’s a caffeinated spree of half-baked interests. And it leaves me starving.

Back at Bar Martha, the night rolls on, and I’m listening with a reverence I haven’t felt in years. I watch our DJ pull from ceiling-high shelves records that bear a kind of fixed integrity. In a world where most culture is algorithmically flattened, here is a single man in a room, simply choosing songs based on that relic from the before-times: personal taste. Needle touches vinyl, and a grief-stricken Nina Simone sings, “Ne me quitte pas.” To hear that beacon of a voice and to be moved, and yet to refrain from any critique or review, is our goal. For once to hold back our vulgar additions.

Alas, we’re three cocktails in, and I forget. I turn to my husband and enthuse too loudly about the song. Immediately, the bartender leans over to hush me.

This is a space that offers a gift, but it also makes demands. Even at a haven for attention like this, real focus does not come easy; we have to fabricate such spaces, painstakingly, from our collective memory. That might look like a listening bar, or it might look like Brooklyn-founded Reading Rhythms, where young people come together in silence to consume novels with their beers. Whatever shape such renewal may take, it will feel a little strange at first, a little bracing, and even slightly religious—an antique service or rite.

When we leave Bar Martha a little past midnight—charmed and uplifted and buzzed—the noise of Tokyo envelops us again. Halfway down the street, I look back at the bar’s humble entrance. Just a windowless front of grey stone and an old plank door. You’d miss it entirely if you didn’t know where to look.

Minutes later, we’re navigating Shibuya’s famous Scramble Crossing. A couple of thousand harried souls cross that intersection every green light while gargantuan advertising glows down on them with Times Square ferocity. That such a frenzied crush could exist at so easy a distance from the calm focus of a listening bar gives me a measure of hope. Perhaps all the noise, all the look-over-here, all the sheer belligerence of contemporary life somehow creates its own opposite. Perhaps a hunger for focus and real attention will always draw a few of us down the quieter side-streets in search of our remaining shrines.

Read more from our Spring 2024 issue.

Post Date:

April 29, 2024