Headphones, those aural attachments linking people and machines, are found in almost every setting that features human activity. As my children left for school recently, chief among their concerns was to make sure that they brought headphones and music. Boarding the bus that carried them to school, headphones were donned and each wearer traveled to the accompaniment of an individualized soundtrack.
Headphones and portable music devices, of course, are no longer novel products. Sony launched the first Walkman in 1979; it was initially called, variously, the “Soundabout,” the “Stowaway,” and the “Freestyle” in different world markets. The birth of the Walkman signaled a new era in personal entertainment. The iPod, while offering digital technology and unlimited programming possibilities, is really just a more evolved concept of an older machine. Users of both devices tune in to music that they have personally chosen, while they simultaneously tune out from the rest of humanity.
I was struck by the sight of over half the students on the school bus, quietly ensconced in their own musical refuges. The lack of connection to the outside world seemed to me to be analogous to social changes wrought by the consumerist mentalité honed in these recent decades of hyper-capitalism; under the guise of personal choice and individual freedom, human interaction appears to be increasingly seen as a distraction, rather than an integral part of life.
Hearkening back to my childhood, I thought of my own experiences on busses or in automobiles. One of the best ways to pass the time was to engage in song – the louder the better. As I traveled with other children on field trips, vacations, or visits to relatives’ houses, the defining event on such excursions was group singing, especially such wonderful ditties as “99 Bottles of Beer”:
99 bottles of beer on the wall
99 bottles of beer,
If one of those bottles should happen to fall,
98 bottles of beer on the wall.
Despite the protests of any nearby adults, the communal joy of group song united us youngsters and awakened a sense of the power of social bonds. There was still freedom for the individualists, who could interject lyric changes (“99 bottles of pee on the wall”) or magnitude shifts (“a million bottles of beer on the wall”). Free market aficionados – usually parents or employed older siblings - could also negotiate the terms of group solidarity (“I will give each of you a dollar to be quiet for the next hour”). Ultimately, even this attempt to bribe the silence of the nascent group consciousness only reinforced the collective sense; the same could be said for desperate authoritarian measures, as found in a weary parent demanding silence.
Pre-Walkman teens engaged in a variety of communal experiences involving music. Eagerly anticipated by any young person with a radio was the weekly countdown. There were, of course, plenty of songs that any given listener hated, but always a few worth waiting for. The rise of FM radio in the 1970s increased the number of choices, but groups became defined by their stations of choice. Powerful car stereos, for the most part, blasted the stations in which the listeners identified. If eight-tracks or cassettes were played, the group still listened – sometimes grudgingly – to the consensus choice.
Even the boom-box, despite its intrusion into the domiciles of neighbors, possessed an element of community. Megawatt entertainment centers, usually propped upon the shoulder of the possessor, broadcast musical selections hundreds of yards. Whether one loved, despised, or remained indifferent to the box owner’s musical taste, every person within earshot shared the experience.
The Walkman, however, added a completely new element to the mix – the isolated musical consumer. One no longer joined others on a musical excursion, put up with the choices of the group, or remained resigned to the cacophonous choices of others. Largely cut off from the outside world, Walkman owners temporarily plugged into a sonic universe of self-seeking detachment in which, like an aural opiate, offered an escape from reality.
The iPod, like the Walkman, isolates the listener from the people around them. The owner of the device, however, is in a sense even more removed, as the very playlist is individualized. Alone in a musical oasis, the iPod owner becomes separated from humanity, and contact with others is seen as an intrusion, rather than an integral part of human existence.
And the band played on…