Start a Virtual Listening Club—It’ll Change Your Life

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The no-troll zone of a virtual music club offers a direction to personal listening at a moment when so many things feel directionless.

Illustrations of ears an eye vinyl and more
Graphic by Drew Litowitz

A week into pandemic-induced closures, the prospect of long-haul isolation seemed unfathomable. Still, we needed something to do—not just a diversion, but an emotional necessity. And so, in late March, after tweeting a call for members to join a new virtual listening club (“like a book club, but for music”), we gathered nearly a dozen people—most of them strangers—on Zoom for our first weekly session. Our inaugural pick was The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, who’d died earlier that month. For two hours, the country legend’s 1978 release was our sole focus—no discussion of airborne transmission or techniques for grocery sterilization. It was a relief.

Originally conceived as a listening club for albums, our group has delved into everything from Elvis Costello’s Hey Clockface to Michael Kiwanuka’s Kiwanuka to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated. These days, one member or the entire collective decides on a theme for each listening—from summer anthems to songs about hate—and we all bring a song to share. Meeting every week on Zoom, we listen and debate each track’s merits, share personal stories, discuss the artist’s career, or consider the song’s social or political implications. Music is the foreground but can also be the background, and it’s always a good excuse to get together. Over the span of 10 months, we’ve learned each other’s quirks, be it a penchant for less-than-two-minute songs or an unabashed love for the Darkness. Fostering friendships among music lovers who’ve never actually met, this weekly ritual has given our lives meaningful rhythm.

Successful virtual gatherings require a clear purpose, a set cadence, and a fair bit of conscious planning—and yet participants often still feel the absence of physical togetherness. Bring music to virtual gatherings, though, and you can nourish those interactions; it’s a way to communicate that doesn’t demand words. Take the opening notes of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”—from our third album selection, Heart Like a Wheel—and the way the groove elicits a flood of sensations that stimulate discussion. The simple act of communal listening generates conversation. Our eyes get a chance to rest, and our brains can both zone out and focus. Music transports us to a world intimately tied to the one we live in, yet distinct. That so many of our normal music routines have been disrupted is all the more reason to listen with purpose.

Listening clubs work well in an era of daily chaos because unlike book clubs, they don’t require homework. Once we decide on the theme, the amount of time each member spends deciding which song to bring is up to them. That could mean hours sifting through bagpipe videos for a Rufus Harley song to share during what we call Research Week (prompt: investigate a kind of music you know nothing about), or five minutes figuring out which Eurovision Song Contest winner will bewilder people most (try this). Either way, the group’s experience is the same. We listen, talk, connect.

The club, as a collective, has listened to Nirvana and Grace Jones, Stromae and the Tragically Hip, ’70s Cambodian rock and 2020 soca—all of it new to some members. But music is also ideas. When our theme was Musicians Under 20, Rachel Sweet’s uncomfortably sexy “VooDoo” sparked an involved discussion about the “jailbait” motif in ’80s music. Another week, sharing memorable music videos led us to explore how Eluvium’s “The Motion Makes Me Last” uniquely represents the aesthetics of the sublime. We had Christmas in July and brought musical gifts for each other, like Mary Margaret O’Hara and Galaxie 500. And we’ve dug into enduring questions like what to make of bad music by great musicians, or what we receive from music in a language we don’t speak.


 

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