For most Americans, the first sound they noticed in 2020 was the sound of silence.
On Friday the 13th of March the sounds you might have heard in any American city were indistinguishable from every Friday that came before it. Bars and restaurants were packed, the windows of dance halls and nightclubs were thrumming, and commercial streets were filled with the sound of car engines, most of them carrying slightly inebriated passengers from one hotspot to another.
By Saturday night, things were changing. Instead of the sounds of cocktail shakers and cash registers opening behind the bar, city dwellers were hearing a stream of “beeps” as the grocery store clerks scanned large quantities of canned food and toilet paper. By Tuesday the 17th, when hundreds of thousands of Americans would normally be hearing the sounds of folk music at their local Irish bar, many of us were instead hearing our friends’ digitized voices through Zoom for the first time. By the following Tuesday a trip downtown would have exposed you to something you would never expect to hear in America’s cities: the sound of silence.
Nothing has been the same since then, and while we have spent most of this year endlessly discussing, often online, the insanity of what we have all seen in 2020, what many Americans have heard for the first time has been overlooked.
Living in any city comes with a few guarantees in the soundscape: the omnipresent din of cars, the chop-chop-chop of news helicopters, the cucump-cucump of skateboards, the occasional shouting between neighbors trying to be heard over everything.
Likewise, living in the world of 24 hour news updates guarantees at least some indirect exposure to the sounds of disasters that befall humanity: the sounds of emergency vehicles racing, of explosions, of protests and riots, of wildfires, of gunfire, of hospital wings filling up with the sick and dying, of adults breaking down and sobbing. Usually these sounds are not coming out of your screen all at once.
In a normal year these sounds, which are not alien to our cities, compete to be heard over the sounds of bucket drummers on busy corners, over cheers from concert halls and sports arenas, over the hissing of hundreds of food cart grills. In a normal year, most of us would only hear the muffled sounds of disasters for a moment before scrolling on our devices for something less depressing and far away.
In 2020, those distant sounds came to America’s streets and were turned up to a living, wailing howl hovering over our rooftops- waiting for a window to be left open so it can claw into our safe spaces and remind us that our world is in crisis and there is nowhere to hide.
At the end of May, after months of waiting for warmer weather that would allow us to nurture our mental health by spending more time outside, many of us once again heard through our devices the sound of a Black man begging to be allowed to breath as a white police officer killed him.
Almost immediately, millions of Americans set aside their fear of dying from an infectious virus to protest against Police violence and racism: the demonic howl that lurks underneath every American community. While many of us are not strangers to the chants that have accompanied most American protests for the past decade or more, in 2020 thousands were exposed to sounds they have not heard before: the whump, pop, crackle, and hiss of toxic gas projectiles their government shot at them, the ringing in their ears after the bang of a flash grenade reverberated between the boarded up windows of downtown businesses, the sound of their neighbors coughing, screaming, and crying in pain, anger, and fear.
Throughout the summer the protests were often paired with rioting, and again Americans were exposed to sounds many have never heard before: the spine-gripping boom of fireworks being set off next to a tightly packed crowd, the deep whump of a bronze statue toppled to the ground, the crash of windows being smashed by rage-filled neighbors. As the year drew to a close, we were also exposed to the sounds of protesters harassing journalists in public spaces and politicians in their homes.
If West Coast residents were told in any other year that they had to spend less time socializing inside, many of us would have spent more time hearing the sounds of waves crashing against beaches, of rushing rivers flowing among ancient forests, of wind sweeping against mountains blanketed in snow and then wildflowers. Instead we heard the sounds of an entire coastline on fire: of homes and livelihoods being incinerated, of the silent deathly orange haze that forced us into a new kind of quarantine to avoid the worst air quality on the planet.
When we managed to spend some time with our families, the pandemic made even the sounds of conversation with loved ones uncanny and muted as we spoke them through masks. As the election approached and passed, many of us also heard for the first time the sound of loved ones describe relatives they disagree with not just as stupid or wrong, but also as cruel, immoral, and “evil.” That was before the attempted overthrow of our democracy by a then-sitting president.
Rather than ending with a kind of relief, the pandemic is ending with the sounds of crime waves hitting cities big and small across the country.
In my hometown of Portland, residents were getting shot “roughly every two days” at the end of 2020, which saw more than 850 shootings as well more than 200 injuries from shootings. With every gunshot breaking the sound barrier, Portlanders as far as a mile away are further reminded that it isn’t just the pandemic that has made this a deadly year.
Seeing horrific events filled with human suffering take is something Americans have grown accustomed to through TV and the Internet. But the pandemic has exposed millions of Americans to the sounds of violence and suffering- from flash grenades and bullets to ambulances rushing down desolate streets overflowing hospitals- without any of the sounds normally there to drown them out. What used to feel quiet and remote is now intimate, piercing, and terrifying.
As the vaccinations increase, some of us may be able to move past 2020 as a bad dream they witnessed from the relative safety of the living room. But for many the pandemic will be seared into their memories through the sounds of frightened loved ones and neighbors dying from a virus and from bullet wounds, of the homes of their loved one’s being incinerated, of their government poisoning and beating them, of rioters destroying their businesses, of their parents breaking down in the face of job loss and eviction. This was the first time most Americans ever experienced anything like this, and we should not pretend it has not had an effect on our collective psyche, especially as we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.