The Whistling Rebel

The other day I found myself in the hallway of the vacant 13th floor of an office building. As I approached the intersection with another hallway, I heard someone whistling Mary Had a Little Lamb. When I turned the corner at the intersection I came face to face with the construction worker who was responsible for the performance. He quickly modified his tune by throwing in some random notes to obscure the original melody.

It didn’t fool me, and I thought about calling him out on it. But then I remembered all the times when I thought I’d been alone and whistled corny songs. I myself had been a victim of music bullying, teased for liking or whistling uncool music or for being clueless to the latest music trends.

In Elementary School, I was a kid unsure of how to defend myself for whistling Eine Kleine Nachtmusik while walking down the hall. I didn’t have enough “street sense” at the time to say, “Oh, I’m just whistling that annoying IHOP song.” Instead, I’d confess that I’d been sharing a Mozart tune with the world and would deal with the subsequent snickers.

Not only was my whistled music ridiculed. Later, in my high school and college years, my mix tapes were always rejected at parties and social gatherings, perhaps for my persistent inclusion of Safety Dance (the most fun song ever) on every mix.

I’m sure we all have a favorite song we’re too ashamed of to admit. Why is this? Why should a particular arrangement of tones be more culturally acceptable than others? I think we would all like to release our inner Carlton Banks, which perhaps is why the Carlton dance resonates with so many people. We would like the opportunity to be happy without fear of derision for the very thing that makes us happy.

What is interesting to me is the whistling phenomenon. What we whistle is normally an unconscious decision. We’re repeating something we’ve recently heard or recalling something close and familiar. We just do it. A melody takes hold and emerges from our pursed lips.  And it always happens when we’re happy or at least solidly content (I’ve never considered whistling Mozart’s Requiem when in a depressed mood). So, if the melodies we whistle are associated with happiness, why would we suppress the other outlets of these songs for the sake of social conformity? Do we value acceptance more than happiness? Should we be ashamed for being a whistling rebel?