I’ve never been much of a soccer fan, but I’ve been watching some of the World Cup games this time around. What made the biggest impression on me, however, was not the play on the field, but the unvarying, awful blare of plastic trumpets that fills the arena. It is a horrible, buzzing drone, and it never lets up for a second.
The trumpet itself is called a vuvuzela, which I understand means, in some local tongue, “cheap piece of crap that makes a really loud vu-vu noise”.
The thing is LOUD: at its maw it has been measured, according to this Wikipedia article, at 131 dB, which is comparable to a Formula One race car in full flight. Multiply that by the seating capacity of a sports arena, and the result is an extremely large amount of totally pointless noise.
I’m not suggesting that spectators at the World Cup should sit in silence and applaud politely when goals are scored. The voice of the crowd is an important part of events like this. But stadium noise is usually a densely composite sound that varies continuously as events on the field unfold. It is a confluence of tens of thousands of emotional human utterances. Its individual components span the full range of the human vocal apparatus, and the attentive listener can pick out of the sound of the crowd individual people saying things. Sitting in the stands, you hear the voices all around you clearly and separately, while those farther away begin to blend into the general roar. Even that general roar rises and falls, and clearly expresses shared sentiments in the form of boos and cheers. It is a rich, complex, and deeply human sound.
But the vuvuzela offers none of that. It doesn’t even vary in pitch; it just brays away on a constant, deafening B-flat. It expresses no individuality, no thought, no emotion — nothing at all, except an urge to make noise. And that noise is disturbingly non-human: it is the sound, not of a stadiumful of people getting together to cheer their champions to victory, but of a world-devouring swarm of insects. It is utterly mindless, and as such I find it terribly depressing.
A friend of mine is heading to South Africa later this week to attend some of the games. I don’t envy him at all.