The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Stick It In Your Ear

There are, I think, certain events that make it clear that the period you refer to as your “youth” has irretrievably faded into the past. One is when the musical acts you listened to almost obsessively have greatest hits collections, anthologies and (yes) even boxed sets in their catalogs. Another is when you favorite acts become fodder for summertime reality/nostalgia television shows. (Also, clubs dedicate whole nights to the music that comprised the soundtrack of your formative years, now reduced to a “theme.”)

I think another such moment is when the technology you used to listen to all that music goes the way of the Betamax — as Sony has announced will happen to its Walkman.

Sony Walkman WM A602

Sony announced on Monday that it is shutting down production of the Walkman. Talk about ending with a whimper: Who knew that portable cassette players were still being made at all?

But, please, a little respect. As bulky, cheesy, and crude as they may seem in an age of iPods, iPads, and smartphones, the Walkman players were a revolutionary product—perhaps the seminal innovation in the popular culture of our time. The initial concept for the gadget came from the company's co-chairman Akio Morita, who wanted to listen to his favorite operas on his frequent flights across the Pacific. Its significance, however, turned out to lie not so much in its portability as in its offer of isolation and autonomy—transforming not only the way we listen to music, but the way we view our place in the world.

Consider this: The first Walkman model, the TPS-L2, introduced in the summer of 1979, was equipped with two headphone jacks. Sony’s ads showed pairs of very different people—for instance, a short old Japanese man and a tall, young American woman—both wearing headphones plugged into the same Walkman. The TPS-L2 even featured a button that let the sharers filter out the music for a moment, so they could talk to each other through the headphones.

“Up until the Walkman, listening to music was a shared experience,” Bob Neil, a Sony vice president told me back in 1999, when I was writing a story for the Boston Globe about the player’s 20th anniversary. Nobody could imagine people buying something that would let them listen all alone; the whole notion would surely strike the people around them as “rude.”

Rude? My, but times have changed. Nowadays, when you get on the bus or the Metro you’re likely to see a sign telling you that you can only listen to music if you’re using earphones or earbuds. If you look around on the bus or on the train, chances are at least half of your fellow commuters will have their earbuds in. Some might be listening to music via an iPod, but some might also be playing games or watching videos, thanks to the advent of smartphones (which some would argue are well on the way to being our ruin).

The Walkman and the Boombox were from the same era, and one was certainly more successful based on what I see on the bus and the metro. It would actually be considered rude to use earphones or earbuds while listening to music.

Sure, it made music more private. But also made it more personal. I could listen to any kind of music I wanted, without having to worry what anyone else thought. Fortunately, for a kid just coming out, that privacy is is sometimes the ticket. I could pump up the volume on Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” or Culture Club’s “Mannequin” without getting any grief.

Now, having my iPod with me means not having to hear the noise of the Metro train, the bus, or the conversations of my fellow commuters. I once had an exchange with a bus driver who for some reason had a problem with me listening to my iPod as I boarded his bus, which stopped at a Metro station. He tried to say something to me and I walked past him.

When a fellow passenger waved to me and motioned for me to take my earbuds out, I did, and she said the bus driver was trying to talk to me. I turned and asked what he’d needed to tell me.

He replied, “Your gonna miss out on a lot with those things in your ears.”

“I have them out now,” I said. “What were you trying to tell me?”

“Nothing important,” he said. “But you are gonna miss out if you have that music playing in your ear all the time.”

I didn’t ask him why we were having that conversation if he didn’t have anything important to say. I didn’t say that, by his own admission, I hadn’t “missed out” on anything important from him by having “that music playing in my ear” as I boarded his bus. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t much care if I missed on on the sound of the bus’s motor, the noise and honking horns of the traffic, the (often loud and annoying) conversations of my fellow passengers, or any of the other “ambient noise” that was like nails on a blackboard to me. I didn’t tell him that during the hour or so I had in my commute, I much preferred to listen to Ella Fitzgerald than to hear him along with all of the above.

Instead, I told him I’d decided to wait for another bus, put my earbuds back in and enjoyed a bit of extra time to listen to my music.

My iPod also comprises part of a virtual “leave me alone cone,” when pared with reading material. Nothing says “Leave me alone,” like having earbuds in your ears and your nose buried in a book.

Besides, I have a husband, two kids, and a full time job. Practically the only time I get to listen to music is on my iPod, during my commute. Granted, I have my the Pandora app on my iPhone, and sometimes fire it up at work, but only occasionally, and then not without interruption. But if I pop in my earbuds for my twice-a-day commute, I don’t have to take them out until I’m nearly at work or almost home. That’s at least a couple of hours when I can enjoy music.

As for music as a shared experience, that’s something better reserved for concerts and other musical performances where it can be reasonably assured that everyone signed on the share the particular music in question. Every day half the people on the bus or the metro have earbuds in their ears, the other end of which are plugged into smartphones or MP3 players. I might wonder what they’re listening to, but I don’t particularly want to share it, and I bet they don’t want to share mine either.

I don’t remember how many Walkmans I went through, or how many of the Discmans I went through when they came out. I’m on about my third iPod now. I’m pretty sure I have the Sony Walkman to thank for that, if only for introducing the idea that I could stick something in my ear and enjoy my own private musical sphere.

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