Can Minneapolis make earplugs cool?

Categories: Your Hearing
Artwork by Emily Utne

This week's City Pages cover story explores the new Minneapolis ordinance requiring free earplugs in music venues. We talked to musicians, scientists, and activists to understand why it's so essential to protect our hearing at concerts, and evaluated the earplugs themselves. No one's required to wear them, but this story might change your mind.

"Just a screech," says Twin Cities rapper P.O.S. describing the moment he temporarily lost his hearing. "Then a little click, pop, and then it was gone."

The 32-year-old Doomtree rhymer (his real name is Stef Alexander) was touring with post-hardcore act Underoath about five years ago when a problem with a wireless rig during soundcheck created a piercing feedback loop.

"It took like three days before [my hearing] started coming back in," he says. "It was painful -- a lot of pressure. It felt totally wrong."

Since that incident, Alexander has suffered from vertigo-like symptoms, a side effect of hearing loss after decades of performing loud music live without hearing protection.

P.O.S. is far from alone. Musicians are 1.45 times as likely as non-musicians to have hearing problems, according to a German study published in April, and not surprisingly, 3.6 times more likely to have noise-induced hearing loss. In 2006, a University of Minnesota study found that 64 percent of participants showed significant threshold shifts -- a hampered ability to hear normally after attending a concert -- compared with 27 percent among those using earplugs.

Eventually, even going to a bar was too harsh for Alexander's naked ears. "If I walk into First Avenue without putting my earplugs in before, just walking in will give me rings for two days," he says.

Although P.O.S. says he still performs as loud as he ever did, he now uses a pair of custom-fit earplugs. The plugs diminish the punishing volume of his shows with experimental electronic group Marijunana Deathsquads, and make it easier to separate out what each member is doing.

The hearing loss Alexander has sustained is irreparable. All he can do now is protect what's left.

"I've been trying to tell every musician I know to get 'em," he says. "They changed the game for me."

Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen
P.O.S. performing at Soundset 2014 with his custom earplugs in.

Hearing damage is inevitable in our world filled with noisy blenders, snow blowers, earbud headphones, car stereos, sporting events, and emergency sirens. As we age, these blasts of decibels weaken microscopic hair cells in our ears, called stereocilia, that don't regenerate. All of this is going on in our lives even before we step into a concert experience with My Bloody Valentine, Skrillex, or even Haim at cilia-blasting volumes.

"It's like the blades of grass on your lawn," says University of Minnesota audiologist Sarah Angerman. "If you walk across your lawn once, those blades of grass will temporarily dampen, but then they'll pop back up. But if you were to take the same path every day, eventually those blades of grass would die."

The stereocilia cells can die faster in people who have a family history of hearing loss, people who smoke, and folks with other medical conditions -- like P.O.S., who relies on a load of medications related to long-term kidney issues. But regardless of how fast high-volume music kills these cells off, the consequences can ruin your life permanently.

Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma prematurely disbanded because guitarist Roger Miller's noise-induced tinnitus -- a constant high-pitched ringing in the ears -- was so prevalent. Now Miller wears heavy-duty rifle-range earphones to perform. Canadian synth-pop star Grimes recently canceled tour dates because the ringing in her ears was so severe that she couldn't sleep. In an extreme case, a British man took his own life after a bout of tinnitus reportedly brought on by volumes at a Them Crooked Vultures show.

Despite stories from noise-induced hearing loss veterans and medical evidence, the threat of permanent hearing loss still goes in one ear and out the other for many concert-goers. Take a look around the next time you're at a show -- only a scant few will have earplugs.

Next: How the Minneapolis earplugs ordinance became reality.

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