Last weekend I stepped outside of my flat and played an entire album. Given how much music is available and my tendency to skip tracks, the only thing about this story that comes close to being remarkable is that I played the album in its entirety. Putting on my headphones and pressing play? That tiny miracle feels as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.
Forty years ago, a Japanese electronics manufacturer released a product that not only changed the way we listen to music, but how we experience the world. The Sony Walkman TPS-L2 was released on July 1, 1979 – a fourteen-ounce portable cassette player that enabled people to listen to music wherever they went. From work commutes to park jogs, we had a new companion to entertain, motivate, or simply drown out the rest of the world.
I have been drowning out the rest of the world for some time. Despite being born nine years after the first Walkman, I have been there for all its children. I remember the cassette player I ‘borrowed’ from my brother, how my discman chewed up CDs while walking, and the long hours I spent recording music onto the short-lived (but much-beloved) mini-discs. Now all my tunes come off my phone via wireless Bluetooth technology. We haven’t figured out how to plug music directly into our brains just yet, but who knows, maybe we will by tomorrow.
What is most significant about the Walkman is not necessarily its technological innovation but rather its impact on culture. Much like the television and radio, the Walkman changed the way humans experience their world, but unlike these earlier breakthroughs the portable music player could reach well beyond the home. The outside world could now be filled with whatever sounds we wanted. A walk through town could be a blistering drum solo, while a lone train journey could become a mournful ballad. If life could be described as a movie, we now had our own soundtrack.
Listening to music in this way has done more than just make our daily lives less boring. Michael Bull has written of how the Walkman, and portable music players generally, have enabled people to recreate spaces in their own image, stating that ‘[m]ediated sound reproduction enables consumers to create intimate, manageable, and aestheticised spaces in which they are increasingly able to, and desire to, live.’ By playing music, I can project my desires onto an area, change how it looks, how it feels and, in my mind at least, its very meaning.
Most significantly, portable music also enables people to make public space private. This has both positive and negative implications, for while the user can get greater enjoyment out of a location, they can also alienate themselves from the area and its people. This separation not only isolates the individual in a world of their own making but can also reinforce differences, rather than dissolve them.
In Sofia Coppola’s cult film Lost in Translation, its odd couple Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson take a taxi through Tokyo by night. In a now iconic scene, both stars stare out of the window, soundtracked by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes’. The music, combined with its neon visuals, show the thoughtful melancholy of two foreigners who feel ‘lost’ in a strange land. Thinking of this scene, I remember playing similar music off my iPod in late-night taxis across Seoul. Back then, somewhat drunk and prone to melodrama, I thought it was meaningful. Now it seems positively colonial.
It is considerations like these that make me wonder what Charles Baudelaire would have thought of the Walkman. The French poet and critic is well-known for his writings on flâneur (lit. ‘stroller’ in French), a man who wanders amongst city crowds as a ‘passionate spectator… in the heart of the multitude’, who is ‘away from home and yet [feels] everywhere at home’. Listening to music on headphones can make a person feel like they belong anywhere – but it all depends on who that person is and what privileges they are afforded.
When the Walkman was first released it cost $400. Portable music is certainly cheaper now, but just because the technology is accessible that does not mean public space is. The ability to move freely in the city is still limited for people more likely to be policed than those to which our modern flâneur might belong (male, white, upper-class, etc.). Baudelaire not only describes the ‘stroller’ as having an ‘aristocratic reserve’ but also his (and it is always his) ability to ‘see the world, be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.’ Disappearing into a world of music, undetected and unscrutinised by people, police, and surveillance cameras? Not everyone can be so lucky.
Last year, police in London violently arrested an innocent Black man while the white suspect escaped. According to a report, issued by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the man had his earphones in at the time, and therefore may not have seen or heard the police identify themselves before being tackled to the ground. Black people are forty times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. Given this racial bias, coupled with the tendency of police for violent apprehension, it is not difficult to see why listening to portable music while Black may be less of a luxury than a liability.
Throughout this article I have used the word ‘we’. But who that ‘we’ is and how it is constituted is important to address if we’re ever going to create spaces where people – all people – can live and listen to music freely. A more just society, free from the violence of law, economy, and prejudice, would be one where everyone can be an audio flâneur, plug in some headphones and go for a stroll. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, the right to the city is ‘a right to change and reinvent the city after our hearts’ desire.’ I think the great promise of the Walkman, and indeed all portable music players, is this very reinvention of space and self through music.
I listen to music on my headphones any place, any time. I listen to music when I’m going to work, when I’m sat at my desk, when I’m reading a book, and when I’m doing nothing at all. I listen to music on my own, and in company, because that’s how anti-social I am. I listen to music when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m drunk out of my mind. A long journey, a lazy afternoon, a loud café. The Walkman changed my world. I’m just waiting for the world to catch up.