There’s noise pollution and then there’s distortion


Make no mistake — in New Orleans, we’ve always loved our jazzmen…from Louis Armstrong to Professor Longhair to Winton Marsalis to dozens of great stompers and shouters that you’ve probably never heard of.

But I’ll tell you one kind of person we don’t stand for in the Crescent City: A strawman.

This other day, a distinguished — or once-distinguished, anyway — scholarly journal called the Oxford American published a major essay on the noise pollution controversy in New Orleans called, bizarrely, “The Anxiety of Authenticity.” The author is a Duke University professor named Duncan Murrell. Last time I checked, Durham, N.C., was about 850 miles as the crow flies from the Big Easy, and while I guess maybe Mr. Murrell has been to our city at some point in time, his pompously written piece comes off like he phoned it in — very naïve, uninformed and one-sided.

It’s a total strawman article. Not long ago, a group of us who actually live and work in the heart and soul of New Orleans formed a group called Hear the Music, Stop the Noise because we were tired — not of the city’s great music tradition, which is what has attracted or kept many of us in the city in the first place. No, we’ve urged the city to step up its enforcement of the city’s noise ordinances because we’re tired of folks who contribute little or nothing to the city’s cultural heritage — nuisance bars that open their doors into the street at all hours of night. itinerant foreign musicians who thoughtlessly set up a sidewalk loudspeaker under someone’s apartment window. We love live music, and when a quality club runs afoul of the decibels standards, we want to work with them on a noise abatement plan that works for everyone.

Duncan Murrell doesn’t know any of this, nor does he seem to care. From his lofty academic tower, he authored a hit piece that called citizens who’ve been assaulted by unwarranted noise pollution the “haute bourgeoisie” which is a Marxist term and implies that folks who want reasonable enforcement of the law are people who want to mute the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or set Dr. John’s piano on fire. I mean….c’mon, give me a break.

Here’s a reality check. No one who lives in the Quarter, or any neighborhood, is against those things that define the city. In any area of NOLA, infact, any resident lives near a neighborhood bar or encounters a  second line parade or jazz funeral…and thus has to deal with issues that accommodate such events. Noise is one of the issues. When does music become noise?

Noise in this instance happens when: 1. it is overly amplified ELECTRONICALLY; 2. it isn’t live music but DJs or canned; 3. it is heard outside the entertainment areas of Bourbon Street, Marigny or other areas at time families are sleeping 4. it violates existing zoning, licensing and noise ordinances which were passed for people’s health and safety

We don’t want the city to stop being New Orleans. but there is no reason to believe New Orleans is synonymous with subwoofers and tweeters at 3 a.m. That’s just rude behavior — and it’s unlawful — no matter where it takes place. Many of us believe in great music, but we also believe in science. And researchers have found time and time again that exposure to excessive, unwarranted noise can cause serious health problems — not just hearing damage but even problems such as high blood pressure and even heart disease over a prolonged period.

Of course, you won’t learn any of that in this so-called professor’s surprisingly ill-informed rant. Indeed, the piece in the Oxford American is a classic case of what we call a strawman argument, building a case around a reality that doesn’t actually exist. And that’s an insult to those of who live in New Orleans and are trying to build a better city — where the world’s best live music can peaceably co-exist with respect for neighbors, and for good health. Musical distortion was great when it came from Jimi Hendrix’s fuzzy guitar, but coming from Duncan Murrell it’s just pointless feedback. I would like him to visit with a client who has to put ear plugs in her and her children’s ears every night since an illegal bar started having live entertainment. Nuff said.

If you must read the Oxford American piece, it’s at:
To read my Sept. 28 essay on music and noise pollution in New Orleans, go to:
To keep informed about the battle for balance in New Orleans, visit the “Hear The Music Stop the Noise” website – and sign our petition:
Please visit and “like” our Facebook page:

To read my Aug. 3 blog post about noise pollution from New Orleans to New York, please check out:

Check out my Feb. 9 blog post about New Orleans noise pollution at:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • AMEN to your article differentiating between music and noise! Also the issue of the opponents using a somewhat bullying tactic of accusing us who live in the Quarter of being music-haters. Gimme a break…but I must admit, I was intimidated from bringing it up with some people, because they thought they were on the side of the angels by defending “art” and “music.” Well written and thank you

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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