First Person

Why obnoxious men like me cycle with a Bluetooth speaker

You’ve probably seen them – those men on bicycles who foist their loud music on an unsuspecting world, blasting tunes and interrupting your picnic. Oliver Keens is (to his occasional regret) one of them, and is desperate to understand why he does it

Friday 14 October 2022 06:30 BST
Men who think the world wants to hear their tunes in a park have an urge that’s marinated in male privilege
Men who think the world wants to hear their tunes in a park have an urge that’s marinated in male privilege (iStock)

I am a grown man who cycles around playing music out of a Bluetooth speaker. I have been for about the last two years now. I’m not what you’d call a loud person – I’m normally quite unassuming – but get me on a bike and I will upend that by playing Chic’s “Everybody Dance” pointlessly loudly to people who didn’t ask for fizzy disco on a Tuesday morning, thank you very much.

I don’t take the piss. I don’t have a big log of a speaker, just a small palm-sized fun nubbin. It doesn’t pack much bass, but high-pitched instruments like flutes sound decent enough. See me rollin’, and there’s a good chance you’ll get an unsolicited blast of Seventies jazz-funk flautist Bobbi Humphrey, for example. Brittle and mildly coruscating Eighties indie also sounds OK, so in a departure from the usual sounds of the summer, I spent a good chunk of the last season merrily cycling along to Wire, Felt, Pixies and especially The Fall. I don’t think I was being an aloof, attention-seeking weirdo, but honestly, I can’t tell any more.

What I do know is that I’m not alone. There’s a definite, identifiable tribe of us speaker folk. We are the people who like to think the world would be a better place with our music foisted upon it. We’re on the beach playing old-school hip-hop bangers. We’re in your festival campsite at 7am playing s*** techno. And though I hate to gender things, we’re inescapably, unavoidably always, always men. I’ve come to define us as the Bluetooth W*****.

For me and quite a lot of my noisy cohort, the pandemic was very much year zero on the timeline to w*****dom. Back then, doing anything beyond crying or wrestling in the streets over loo roll felt like a treat. So hearing amplified music in an outdoor space was like walking into Paradise Garage. I should mention that I’m also a DJ (please don’t click away), so I initially felt a cute raison d’être to playing music outdoors. But that rapidly vanished when lockdowns began to ease. I started to see that DJs and men who think the world wants to hear their tunes in a park share a similar impulse: a competitive spirit fought in decibels; the desire to be in control at all times; obsessing over gear and the size of one’s... woofer. It’s an urge that’s marinated in male privilege.

To be clear, this isn’t a gripe against the concept of amplified music. It’s more about the idea of dickishly inflicting your music on those around you. In parks especially, I feel bad that Bluetooth W***** (yes, yes – like me) disrupt somewhere traditionally meant for peaceful communing with nature, and rare public space in an increasingly privatised world. Not everyone may have the robust mental health to deal with a random 160bpm jungle tune in a park. We make them unsafe spaces, and that’s sort of why I hate myself for this. In what’s probably a world first, I manage to give myself the ick over all this Bluetooth w******.

While the speakers themselves are irresistibly easy to use, I don’t think the devices create the person. There’s way more going on in the psychology of a Bluetooth W***** than we think. Part of it is a British thing. I think we’ve become a much louder country than we consider. Nowhere is this seen more starkly than in the capital’s restaurant trade, which is continually flagged for having the loudest decibel counts in all of Europe – some topping 90db, which is around the loudness of a motorbike. In our clubs, festivals and live music shows, we love to complain that our experience isn’t loud enough. It’s up there with queueing as a national obsession. And when you start to really look for it, I think we increasingly like to use music as an unthinking means of filling a void. As if we’re creating an automatic atmosphere that we Brits struggle to achieve through conversation (and, dare I say it, through empathy and care for our fellow human beings, too).

This is where I think men especially get their zeal around being a speaker guy. My best guess as to why so many men go down this route – aside from the standard practice of showing off and wanting everyone to know how totally cool they are (this is not a revelation) – revolves around a fear of silence that a lot of men seem to have. When you get close to men, you can sometimes feel a tension being dissipated when music comes on. It’s as if nothing can get too serious as long as there’s music playing. No we-need-to-talks. No I-need-to-tell-you-somethings. When the three astronauts aboard Apollo 11 travelled on humankind’s first voyage to the moon, they had a primitive cassette recorder with them, loaded with songs by Glen Campbell and Peggy Lee. It’s a funny image: brave, interplanetary explorers all vibing to easy listening because they’re terrified of awkward silences.

Oliver Keens’ bluetooth speaker, which accompanies him on his bicycle journeys
Oliver Keens’ bluetooth speaker, which accompanies him on his bicycle journeys (Oliver Keens)

Even though I’m casually referring to myself as a Bluetooth W*****, there’s a definite harm that comes with demonising people who engage in what some tabloids call “sodcasting”. There are lots of very pure and excellent reasons why people do it. One of my best interactions with a dude blaring out drum’n’bass in a park involved him telling me that he’d never been clubbing before. It just wasn’t part of his lifestyle or culture. Yet he loved the music and just wanted to hear it loud. Who can blame him? Music played with intention is everything. It’s the best feeling in the world. But play it pointlessly, as a void-filler or an ego trip, and it suddenly becomes a bit embarrassing. I think it’s time for me to disconnect for a while, and inevitably find some other ways to be a w***** instead.

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