by Mose Wiles

Media by Choice

June 12, 2009

The boom car menace is one of those issues that gets attention for a while then falls off the radar screen. A recent bump in local TV and print coverage suggests that ultra loud car stereos with the thump-thump bass that make the ground vibrate are back on the radar screen, but surely it won’t be for long.

Local TV coverage in Slidell, La., last week focuses on the ineffectiveness of penalties at curbing boom car noise violations. The episode talks about the owner of a boom car who refuses to turn down his stereo even though he’s already paid $1,500 in fines over the years.

A boomer interviewed by the local TV station calls the focus on enforcing noise ordinances misguided because police should be devoting their resources to fighting violence. “They should be putting forth efforts to make the city safer,” the person said.

There’s unintended irony here. Making ultra loud noise is in fact a form of violence. The U.S. Department of Justice studied boom cars a few years ago and in its reporttalked about the subculture of antisocial behavior that underwrites it. The loud stereos seem to have little to do with music and a lot to do with dominance.

Noise Free America, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls boom cars a “gateway” crime because it leads to a breakdown in law and order: wherever you have a boom car problem you have a general crime problem.

For many years one anti-boom car activist in Norman, Oklahoma, maintained a Web site on which he posted online comments directed against him by boomers and the comments are, to put it mildly, violence turned into words. His Web site is down now, but it’s hard to forget the comments.

The custom car stereo industry for the last several years has been aware of boomers’ image problem and has been encouraging stereo manufacturers and others with a hand in the boom car culture to tone things down otherwise cities will start upgrading their noise restrictions to include outright boom car bans.

The image restructuring is sorely needed. Years ago, it was all the rage for stereo manufacturers to advertise their products as instruments of violence. You can see some of these ads for yourself at a database maintained by Noise Free America. The ads reach hard-to-believe heights in tastelessness. They make fun of people getting heart attacks from the loud noise or the rattling of the frail and elderly.

There have been several articles in the major daily media in recent years about the lack of empathy among people today. And, indeed, the empathy issue has been raised repeatedly in the context of the random violence at schools that we’ve seen. Well, the boom car ads are designed as a kind of celebration to a lack of empathy. Again, they are violence turned into words.

Of course, the car stereo industry has more than an image problem. Many recent studies are finding new links between cardiovascular health and other measures of well-being and the amount and kind of noise to which people are subjected. People literally are having heart attacks over noise. And the emotional stress of noise tears down people’s immune system, increasing their susceptibility to a host of problems.

Noise is one of those impossible-to-solve issues because one person’s noise is another person’s music. And one person’s nightmare is another person’s expression of freedom (although we would call it license, not freedom). For that reason, anyone who wades into any noise debate does so at the outset knowing of its futility. On the one hand people routinely say it’s the biggest quality of life issue in their apartment building or their neighborhood or their workplace, while on the other people routinely dismiss noise as the complaint of the namby-pamby set. We would guess that noise is among the most regulated yet least enforced civic rules on the books.

For that reason it might not be a bad idea for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the boom car issue. The court in the late 1940s considered a noise case that probably has a lot to say about today’s problem with boom cars. The case involved the broadcasting of commercial messages from a loud speaker attached to a truck. The driver drove around town broadcasting the audio content until the city council put a stop to it. The Supreme Court’s role was to rule whether the city ban constituted a violation of the constitutional right to free speech. The verdict: it wasn’t, because residents of the city had an equal right not to be bombarded with media from which they can’t escape—captive-audience media, in other words, which is the raison d’etre of this blog.

Everyone has a right to enjoy their music, no matter how much that music might offend others. But that right isn’t the same as a right to bludgeon others with it. When you bludgeon others with your media, it becomes a form of violence. And isn’t that what one of the boomers in the recent TV coverage want the police to focus on? It seems like the police are right to curb violence by curbing boom cars.