Personal Soundtracks

Two decades of mix-and-match music--and a more harmonious world


It's been 20 years since Sony started selling the Walkman, rescuing us from the sounds of the '70s. How it used to rankle, to be forced to listen to "Stayin' Alive," "Disco Duck," or whatever else someone nearby wanted to hear. Until 1979, there was no way to reconcile his need for bad music with your need to be free of it. If you wanted a stereo system you could carry while biking, skateboarding, or shopping, your only option was the boombox, better known in my old neighborhood as the "ghettoblaster." And blast it certainly did.

With the Sony Walkman and its clones, we could tote around our own music without imposing it on everyone else. For teenagers everywhere, this was the best thing since blue jeans and vending machines. Tiny, lightweight, and portable, the Walkman could destroy their eardrums without annoying anyone with more taste or common sense. It's also been coach, concert hall, and personal reader for millions of workout warriors, housewives, and retirees. For travelers, it is a trusty companion, something to ward off talkative salesmen and grandmothers loaded with wallet-size photos. Anywhere you go, you can tune in to joyful noise and kick boredom to the curb.

The Walkman has personalized such mass media as radio and records. Headsets create a sense of intimacy; the stereo sound lets listeners feel like they're in a studio or a concert hall, no matter what environment actually surrounds them. The Walkman expands our choices, lets us remake the world around us without impinging on our neighbors' ability to do the same. You can stand in Grand Central Station during the afternoon rush hour and have one foot in Lilith Fair; or in a studio session with Mingus, Monk, or Miles Davis; or in a shouting match with Rush Limbaugh.

My conservative friend Marty Dekom can ignore Bill Clinton just by putting on his headphones. "I can watch CNN and listen to Tom Petty," he reports happily. "I can attend tree-hugging rallies for eco-bozos and enjoy AC/DC." Michael Marsden, co-editor of The Journal of Popular Film and Television, calls this a metaphysical form of personal space. "It's your personal space that you've created, in a world in which we don't have a lot of personal space," he explains. "It's a totally private world."

The Walkman lets you merge the scenery around you with the soundtrack of your choice. Deroy Murdock of the Atlas Economic Research Institute found this out while touring Europe, fusing the Old World with the dancing bears and tie-dyes of the Grateful Dead. "I learned those songs," he recalls, "while peering out the windows of trains and buses across the continent. Even as I hear those songs today, I associate them with the mountains, plains, and castles of the Old World."

You don't have to travel that far to experience this. It worked for me in my own back yard. I wore my Walkman on a recent Saturday afternoon, walking up Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Latin music pumped through the headset. A woman in a tiny black T-shirt and tight red shorts jogged past me, her Husky-Saluki mutt in tow. The sun, the woman, and the music made a luscious combination, blocking out the roar of traffic rushing toward the Santa Monica Freeway.

Some don't like the Walkman. In The Closing of the American Mind, cultural critic Allan Bloom wrote that the Walkman-tugging teen reduces centuries of Western cultural progress into "a nonstop…masturbational fantasy" celebrating libertinism. The neo-Luddite writer John Zerzan, for whom art itself prevents people from truly experiencing nature, says the Walkman is part of an "ensemble of technologies" that cause a "protective sort of withdrawal from social connections." And any card-carrying member of the hand-wringing morals brigade would lump those magic earphones in with video games and TV violence as abettors of aberrant and abhorrent teen behavior.

Then there's Thomas Lipscomb, chairman of the Center for the Digital Future. He thinks the Walkman is the electronic equivalent of soma, the happiness drug in Brave New World. "It closes you in an airtight bubble of sound," he complains. "It's a sensory depressant." What's more, he says, it prolongs adolescence, stifles social contact, and keeps people from expanding their intellectual horizons.

But why should wearing a headset be more dangerous than any other activity one might do with oneself, from fishing to watching a movie? It is as innocuous as raindrops. In fact, the Walkman is less of a barrier to social contact, because it is so flexible and portable. You can always take off your earphones, listen to street musicians, talk to a neighbor, or flirt with the person across the hallway. Cracks writer David Horowitz, "I've never sat in a living room of people who are listening to their Sony Walkmen instead of talking to each other."

The Walkman is neither hi-fi Prozac nor a perpetual alienation machine. If anything, it makes listening more interactive. We can mix and match our music like clothes, creating our own playlists and carrying them with us wherever we go. This has subtly changed our expectations in the marketplace, forcing the music industry to accept our eagerness to rearrange their products. Now CD-ROMs such as Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World let consumers assemble sampled beats and film clips into personalized versions of their favorite tunes and music videos. And Web sites such as CDNow allow you to buy individual songs and create a customized compact disc.

The new interactivity extends to other cultural activities. We can all be pundits and wordsmiths now. With talk radio, every loudmouthed listener in town can take a turn at the microphone. Some writers now post their work on Web sites like Bubbe's Back Porch, where the line between reader and writer becomes blurry. With hypertext fiction, a form of storytelling similar to games like Myst, that line almost disappears: the reader participates in creating the story, which takes a different form each time it is read. Even cuisine is becoming interactive: There are restaurants now where the diners join the chefs in making meals.

Sony's little music machine didn't start all of the above. But it paved the path, by giving us a taste of privacy, interaction, and choice. The Walkman saved us from hearing "I Will Survive" another 10,000 times. It deserves our thanks.