“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Lauren Bacall crooned this to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not in 1944, and although the same instructions would likely still apply, perhaps now no one would be listening to them. The act of whistling doesn’t seem to have aged as well as the film. In fact, whistling seems to have all but disappeared from modern society, particularly among our generation.
Maybe this is simply because contemporary music doesn’t focus on the subtleties of vocals or instrumentation—most popular songs today just can’t be whistled very easily. (Have you ever tried to whistle a rap song?) Easier songs to whistle, like jazz ballads and showtunes, have fallen off the popular radar, so it’s unsurprising that whistling isn’t as common as it once was. One noteworthy exception is “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn & John, a tune with an insanely catchy whistling section that briefly brought the practice back into style – it’s almost impossible not to whistle along. But then again, there’s a lot more on the radio than Lil Wayne, and most popular songs do have some semblance of a catchy melody. So why don’t we hear anyone whistling them?
Most people whistle when they’re alone—recall the classic image of a jovial, whistling mailman. But it’s not that people spend less time alone now; on the contrary, recent studies have shown that people are actually spending more time by themselves.
How, then, do we account for the decline in whistling? Is it that we’ve become an overstimulated, Adderall-obsessed, zero-attention-span society? Walking through campus on any given day, one is likely to notice students with iPods, cell phones, Blackberries, and a multitude of other beeping, ringing, and buzzing devices. Then again, maybe people haven’t noticed because they too were engrossed with whatever was on their screen of choice. (This is not to say that I am above these rings and beeps and buzzes; I almost ran into someone a couple weeks ago because I was texting while walking to class.) But this is a tired, albeit partially accurate, explanation for just about everything one could deem is wrong with our society nowadays.
Perhaps it’s a combination of things—an increase in time spent alone, plus the abundance of personal technological devices—that accounts for such a manifest lack of whistling. In other words, perhaps we should be focusing on how we spend our time alone. A late-night cigarette break or a respite by the lake is often accompanied by texts and phone calls. It seems that we are never truly disconnected from other people, even when we want to be. Our friends, acquaintances—even our enemies—are always within a proverbial arm’s reach. This undoubtedly makes communication a lot easier, but it also means that our “alone time” has essentially become everyone else’s time too. We have no problem being physically alone, as long as we are never truly left to our own devices—left only with our minds for solace, left only with our hands for action. Whistling, one of the oldest, most basic forms of occupying oneself, just isn’t necessary anymore.
Simple day-to-day events, like a trip to the grocery store or library, are now performed with the ever-present accompaniment of whoever happens to contact us. Time that perhaps would have been spent just thinking, clearing one’s mind—or, of course, whistling—is now at the mercy of the next text message alert or Blackberry e-mail update. That we should always be available has become so expected, and so ubiquitous, that people often don’t respond kindly to an ignored call or text message—even if it is ignored for reasons totally unrelated to the person on the other end of the line.
It’s hard to truly “disconnect” oneself; technology, after all, is a huge part of everyday life, and its prevalence will only increase. It’s becoming harder to argue that one can successfully and efficiently function in contemporary society without a phone or a computer, or that one would even want to do so. But we can create a certain balance of priorities, if we so choose. We can leave our cell phones at home for the night; we can set our phones to silent for the ten-minute cigarette break.
And perhaps if more people did so, we would start to notice more kids whistling on the way to class. Maybe they’d be whistling the same song you were just listening to on your iPod. And maybe, just maybe, everyone would be a little more clear-headed and ready to face the daily onslaught of people and work and socializing, and not be so eager to escape it all. The value of “alone time” is a cliché, but an accurate one at that; time spent alone may help us realize a great deal about ourselves before we are faced with the daunting reality of life after college.
Technology is an integral part of our society, and although its pervasiveness is largely out of our control, we do have control over the way we balance and integrate that technology with other aspects of our lives. In a modernized version of To Have and Have Not, maybe Bogart would take Bacall’s advice, and whistle. And maybe that whistle would turn out to be her ringtone.