Sunday, February 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Walkman

If there is one thing that the newfangled gadgets of today promise, it is the portability of entertainment. Commercials promise telephones that can play movies  and iPods can carry entire musical libraries. The Kindle and iPad are becoming more common sights on the New York subway than an old-fashioned paper book. Wearing earbuds is an international sign for "please do not talk to me," and we think nothing of people walking down the street, lost in musical revery.

That sight, of course, is really nothing new. While our new gadgets can hold more and different kinds of entertainment, the ability to exist in public listening to music that no one else can hear dates back to the Sony Walkman's first appearance on the market in 1979. Like Xerox and Kleenex, the brand name quickly became applied to all such similar devices. I still remember when my older cousin Michelle, who had an impressive collection of Top 40 tapes, let me listen to her walkman. I can't recall what song it was, but I was amazed that I could indeed walk around without any cords to hold me back (remember, this is before the popularization of cordless phones, back then everything had to be attached to the wall.)

I received my own first walkman for Christmas in 1986. This being my family, I got a cheap knockoff that burned through batteries with a vengeance and didn't have a rewind button. For that same Christmas I received The Beatles' 20 Greatest Hits on tape, the first cassette I listened to on my prized new device. (There's a picture of me in a photo album at home on Christmas listening to my walkman while looking over the rules for Axis and Allies, which was my other main Christmas gift. Looking back on it, that was one of the best Christmases ever!) I gave that tape quite a workout over the years, mostly since it was almost exactly as long as it took my family to drive from my hometown to my grandparents' farm seventy miles away, a trip we made quite often.

The walkman proved indispensible on family road trips, since I could lose myself in the music and not have to socialize. This was especially important as I got older, when my musical tastes tended towards stuff that was quite a bit weirder and more jarring than the John Denver and Carpenters tapes my parents took on every road trip. The walkman was also a convenient way to pretend that I didn't hear when my mom asked us kids to pray a decade of the rosary. (Yes, I come from a very Catholic family.)

Of course, the walkman giveth and the walkman taketh away. I was pretty anti-social in high school, and on the many debate and band bus trips I took over those four years I tended to retreat into my own private musical world. Looking back on it, I was missing a chance to socialize and even, yes, to talk to young females. One girl on the debate team that I had a crush on my senior year was sweet on me, but it took months to make progress because I was more interested in listening to Jimi Hendrix or Dinosaur Jr (they provided two of my favorite songs to get psyched to before debate rounds my senior year. Yes, I am a nerd.)

So yes, our gadgets can blind us to the wealth of experience and beauty that surrounds us on a daily basis. That being said, I've often used walkmen and iPods to enhance experience. When I travel by train from Newark to New York City by myself, I like to cue up a special New York playlist to get in the mood. (Cat Power's cover of "New York, New York" is one of my favorites in this regard.) When I was a graduate student I liked to go for walks on grim winter days and wallow in the desolateness of a gray sky over the windswept prairie with "World" by the Bee Gees or "She's a Jar" by Wilco cued up on my discman (I was a late adopter of the iPod, as I am with most tech.) Perhaps if we remember that we control our gadgets, and that our gadgets don't control us, we can intensify experience rather than negate it.

1 comment:

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