A philosophical exploration into the liminality of shower spaces
By Jacob Snyder
Few bathrooms on campus are more private than those found in McBain—one sink, one toilet, one shower, locking doors. And still, showering in one of these bathrooms, especially on weekend mornings or early afternoons, can be a surprisingly intimate experience when I start to hear music. Most of the time, it’s only a pulsating bass from a few bathrooms down; other times, it’s full songs selected by shower-goers next door. While showering on McBain 2, I’ve listened by osmosis to Post Malone, Florida Georgia Line, Eminem, Frank Ocean, Drake, and Kesha. I feel confident estimating that it’s already late enough in the semester for a majority of McBain residents to have involuntarily showered to music curated by their peers, and yet, I’ve never heard any expressions of annoyance with this evidently common practice, from students living in McBain or elsewhere.
Why is this something we’re so OK with? Why should we not be outraged at such an intrusion into one of the most private spaces available to college students? Music appears to hold some special status in this way. To see through the walls of McBain bathrooms would surely be a violation of privacy, but to share music through them is not. It actually seems unreasonable, even downright curmudgeonly, to complain about involuntarily listening to others’ music in such private spaces. What is the source of these intuitions?
The answer may lie in the social function of music listening. We don’t see the act of forcing our peers to listen to Usher while they de-funk as a violation of privacy precisely because playing music out loud can be a kind of social signaling (“this is the kind of music I love!”) or a form of music sharing (“you should listen to this!”). McBain residents don’t play music in the shower despite it being audible to others; they play music in the shower because it’s audible to others!
There are obviously more selfish reasons for listening to music in the shower, too. Music can soothe, entertain, or excite in a way that makes the prosaic act of showering more enjoyable. And it’s possible, depending on how self-conscious the shower-goer in question is, that these selfish motives far outweigh any others.
But if you’re the kind of person to play music in dorm showers, think about the act of choosing the particular music you play. There’s a good chance you select music not purely according to your own interests, but place some (potentially subconscious) value on what others around you would like to hear, even from the private space par excellence of the bathroom. The chances are especially good that you’re playing music as a social gesture during these opening months of the year, when the social conscience of the average Columbian is in overdrive.
The social vocation of music listening would help to explain why I hear so much hip-hop and pop while rinsing off—these are the least offensive and most popular genres of music for the college-aged demographic. Playing niche favorites or guilty pleasures that you might otherwise not listen to while showering (if you were, say, at home by yourself) by definition lowers your chances of pleasing your peers-in-hygiene. In a word: you’ll probably make more friends playing Drake in the shower than The Fall.
There’s one last practical worry here, though: how can music listening in McBain showers perform a social function if these bathrooms are anonymous? There’s no obvious way for shower-goers to identify who it is that’s playing music in the next bathroom overshort of waiting outside the restroom door for the toweled culprit to reveal themselves, of course. This anonymity is an important difference between blasting music in the shower versus in a dorm room. What’s the point of sharing your impeccable music taste if it’s so likely your shower playlist will remain faceless?
Perhaps our desire to play music in the shower despite the factors stacked against it—such as our conflicting wishes for privacy and rational behavior— reveals something basic about human priorities. Even in the most private spaces, there’s room for assertion of our essentially social nature. We are, most of all, social animals. Really clean social animals.