Radio Tread: How the Walkman changed our world

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.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

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.

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

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.   

Review: Fatty Fat Fat at the Vaults

Taking ownership of oneself is not always easy. Technologies, from surveillance to social media, have made the world smaller and if it’s not big companies selling our information, we are helping them do it – from posting a selfie on Instagram to searching on Google. For women, who have grown up with expectations of how to look and act, achieving ownership of one’s self, body, and mind, can be even more of a challenge. And that’s before we even talk about size.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Fatty Fat Fat is a funny and moving show about one woman’s life and struggles in a society that will just not let her live. From early childhood memories, comic sketches, and vivid poetry, Katie Greenall’s show balances humour, introspection, and the need for change. As celebrities and brands try to embrace body positivity (or more accurately, money), Fatty Fat Fat is a refreshing corrective – full of heart and yet devoid of bullshit.

I am sometimes cautious of shows that feature autobiography and reflection. While it is true that all performers bare a little of themselves on stage, I find the sharing of one’s personal life can make me feel uncomfortable. It is for this reason I do not always like attending comedy shows – the fear of cringing always puts me on edge.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

I need not have worried. Katie is a superb performer and storyteller, whose gift of delivery, timing, and judgement gets laughs in all the right places. Crucially though, she never sugar-coats the pain that comes from growing up with a body that friends, family, and society deem unattractive and in need of changing. Her observations are playful but pointed, and gently invite audiences to consider their own prejudices, and those of others.

The energy is kept up throughout, as stories of school-trips, summer days, and discos are broken up with lively routines. Audience participation is a powerful and often underused dramatic tool, but is applied to great effect here with gameshows, readings, and Never Have I Ever. The last of these is a particular highlight, beginning with fun and jokes and ending somewhere far darker.

The set is minimal but effective, featuring one microphone, a fridge, and garish birthday balloons spelling out the word FAT. Katie’s use of these props and the space itself is to be commended, and under the direction of Madelaine Moore she is able to segue between the show’s many different moments with ease and skill.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

My criticisms relate to pacing and structure. The show moves so quickly that I did not always have the time to fully appreciate every moment, and I thought that particular scenes could have benefitted from further development.

The sketches sometimes felt as though they were cut short, which was a shame, as they are highly enjoyable and engaging. I would also query some of the poetry, for while Katie’s language is indeed beautiful, it sometimes felt at odds with the otherwise frank and down-to-earth tone of the show.

Fatty Fat Fat is a brilliant and creative work, the result of a talented writer and performer with an abundance of fresh ideas. I am not in the least surprised that the show has now received Arts Council Funding, and I am looking forward to seeing how it grows and develops further.

Theatre is and should be a space for expression and affirmation, no matter who you are or what your body type. Hopefully with shows like Fatty Fat Fat, more people can take ownership.

Fatty Fat Fat is showing at the Vault Festival until Sunday 3 Feb. Tickets are available from the website.