Working in isolation, there’s no background noise. Or at least, there’s less than you’re probably used to.
The past few months have been lonely for everyone, whether you’re quarantined with a partner, friends, family, or on your own. We’re seeing the sun less; we’re breathing outside air less. So many people are waking up with weight on their chest — unsure whether it’s anxiety, allergies, or the sudden creep of COVID-19 — that there’s a primer on what differentiates symptoms of anxiety from potential illness.
And besides the general malaise of a shut-down society, friends and family are getting sick, or getting furloughed, or being laid off. For many who are still working, workloads are getting even heavier to compensate for workers lost. But whether you’re hard at work Monday through Friday or passing time idly, waiting for the country to reopen, we’re all looking at our screens more than ever.
Those who work remotely are deeply folded into the virtual: hosting Zoom calls, Slacking questions, writing emails. Doing so in silence can get maddening: silence ushers in the reality of our isolation. It’s human to miss the chatter of kids outside, the casual conversations with coworkers, walking to get a coffee to remove yourself from work, just for a moment.
So what’s the equivalent of a break when we live and work in one place? If you don’t have to get dressed, or shower, or even sit up to start your day, what’s to stop you from working in bed, sleep crusting your eyes, still in pajamas?
Working from home, day after day, the silence can be overwhelming. In this unprecedented, batshit time, background sound is crucial to keep you from getting too deep into your own head or feeling too deeply your own isolation. Music lets us set a mood to either coincide with or boost our own, a conscious decision when so little of our personal world is under control. There’s the comfort of songs you love, and the discovery of dustier albums you should’ve found ages ago. There’s a way to engage with what’s being made outside your room when you’re not able to leave it. Right now, the sense of community among music fans — especially as many listen to just-released albums for the first time — is a sort of connection Zoom calls can’t quite touch.
Let me advocate for not just background noise, but playing records throughout your day. Records may be essential — now more than ever — for maintaining normalcy at home. Picture this: you riffle through your record collection, touching spines; select an album; slip the vinyl from its sleeve; place it on the turntable; move the needle; adjust the volume. Then, task complete, you sit at your desk.
Playing records isn’t like streaming albums. There’s no distracting urge to song-skip, shuffle, or pick something new — you’ve committed to the ride.
By choosing a record, you’ve set a mood. Maybe it’s ambient; maybe it’s sad; maybe it’s upbeat; maybe it makes you think of spring. There’s nothing wrong with dire music for dire times — it’s about playing what comforts you and lifts you.
And when you get sucked too far into your work, Side A finishes. It spurs you to action; suddenly, the music’s gone, and the urge to replace it is immediate. Standing up and flipping the record, or selecting a new one, might be one of the most tactile moments in your workday. You have to stand, take a breath, and make a choice — one that doesn’t carry huge, life-altering implications in a moment where most choices do matter. Most importantly, it’s a choice you make for yourself.
Rotating records throughout the workday is similar to setting an intention: You’re soundtracking your day, you’re caring for that soundtrack, and you’re keeping yourself tethered to the world offscreen.
You can’t stay in bed all day if you have to hear Side B. You can’t think too hard about the quiet when the quiet is offset with your favorite album. Consider how to make this period of isolation bearable — enjoyable, even — as work and home converge into a single, blurry mess. Pick the next record, sit down, and keep on moving.
Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.