The device that lets you "blot out the rest of the world.”
The Sony Walkman was a sensation from the very start. And while it was the subject of the sort of moral panic typical of the era, its impact has been more transformative than most of us realize.
MY EARBUDS FAILED JUST AS I WAS GETTING ON THE BUS on the way in to work last week. The left one made a short musical gurgle, then conked out, leaving my right ear to bear the burden of the suddenly tinny and hollow sounds of Billy Corgan’s guitar. I looked with jealousy at everyone else around me, the students and the office workers and the nannies and the shoppers, all of them snuggled up tight with their phones and their working ear buds, listening to music or podcasts or white noise or maybe even nothing whatsoever.
I pulled my half-busted Ankers out and sat there, ears open to the world, listening to the sounds of traffic and the whine of the bus’s engine and the regular ding of the arrêt demander button. I felt like a foreigner, a time traveler, suddenly launched back into the far reaches of time; or at least, to the late 1970s.
For the vast majority of human existence, music was some combination of live, social, stationary, and public. Very often it was all of these, but even the arrival of analog recording methods (beginning with Edison’s wax cylinders in the late 1880s) only meant that people could now listen to pre-recorded music. But they would still have to do it publicly, in groups, while sitting (or standing, or dancing) in one place. It took the better part of a hundred years for the various parts of that package to be whittled away: recording methods got better and the equipment got smaller; headphones made it possible to listen privately; while the boombox made music sort of portable.
But it was 1979 – that magic year of technological transformation – that it all came together with the launch, in Japan, of the Sony Walkman. For the first time, recorded music was now portable and private.
The story of the development of the Walkman has passed into legend. In early 1979, the company’s chairman, Masaru Ibuka, asked an employee, Norio Ohga, to come up with a device he could use to listen to tapes while on long airline flights. Ohga kludged together a prototype, which Ibuka loved, and they rushed “The Walkman” into production. Sony wasn’t sure what the response would be, so the initial production run was only 30 000 units, which the company figured would last half a year at least. But after a slow start, Japanese youth started gobbling them up, and the whole run sold out within two months.
It went on sale in North America the following summer, where it was initially called the Soundabout. Sony soon changed it back to Walkman, though, and despite selling for $200 (or $700 in today’s money) it was a runaway hit. The Walkman quickly became a must-have cool gadget and celebrity fashion item, and within two years one American household in ten owned at least one. It changed the music industry – forcing a massive shift from vinyl to cassettes – but it also changed the world, in particular how we navigate and even understand urban life.
Most importantly, sitting at the heart of the white-hot intersection of technological innovation and youth culture, the Walkman became the locus of a classic 1980s moral panic and a new front in the raging culture war that dominated the second half of the decade.
Promoters of the device loved the way it enabled a completely new form of urban autonomy. As Sony’s head of audio products put it, the Walkman “provided listeners with a personal soundtrack to their lives,” allowing its users “to make even the most boring daily activities interesting, adding a bit of personal style to everything they do."
But for many, that was precisely the problem. The Walkman promoted isolation, narcissism, and detachment, destroying the sense of common space that fosters the interactions that are the basis of community and public life. It “killed the art of the conversation,” went one news story. Others piled on: “Drug abuse is now earphone abuse.” “Headsets tune out life itself.” As Susan Blond, a VP at CBS Records, said to the Washington Post: “With the advent of the Sony Walkman came the end of meeting people. It’s like a drug: You put the Walkman on and you blot out the rest of the world.”
This sort of talk became de rigeur, and it led to a curious alliance between anti-youth cultural conservatives, left-wing luddites, and post-modern academics. Regardless of their underlying ideological commitments, everyone agreed that the Walkman was the final stage of evolution of our nomadic, atomized, techno-liberal culture. But while the musician Robert Fripp said the Walkman had perfected the “minimum, mobile and intelligent unit” for music listening, the culture critic and professional grouch Allan Bloom saw it as reducing centuries of cultural progress to nothing more than “a nonstop masturbatorial fantasy.”
This all came to a head in the town of Woodbridge, New Jersey, which tried to ban residents from driving, biking, or even crossing the street while wearing a Walkman. Violators could be subject to a fine and up to two weeks in jail. The town made international headlines, including a snootily arch take from the BBC, though it all become a bit less amusing when someone living nearby was killed crossing the street while wearing a Walkman.
You can’t stop progress, though, and the ban didn’t stay in place for long. Yet the critical observation, namely, that the Walkman had fundamentally changed the nature of public space, was hard to deny. In 1984, the Japanese academic Shuhei Hosokawa wrote what has become the definitive statement of the phenomenon, which he coined “The Walkman Effect”. The essay is full of the usual postmodern-y rhetorical loop de loops and the mandatory references to Lyotard and de Certeau, but his central argument is important: the Walkman becomes a form of urban armour that enables new strategies for navigating public space. In particular, it allows people to avoid the sorts of chance contacts or interactions that have alway been part of the bargain of urban living – being hit up for change, being hit on, being accosted, or asked the time, for directions, saying please and thank you to cashiers, and so on. The Walkman puts you in a sort of socio-psychic bubble that lets you tune in or out as you like. Worse, even if you do hear or see someone approach you, the mere fact of having headphones on lets you pretend you didn’t. Urban life is alienating enough, and the Walkman undeniably made the problem worse.
Initially, my own experiences, and often frustrations, with the Walkman were somewhat more prosaic, beginning with the cost. Sometime around grade 9 or 10 I convinced my older sister to go halfsies with me on a used early-model unit a friend was selling for an unaffordable $50. The headphones were lousy, it was pretty clunky and it chewed through batteries at an astonishing rate. But I hogged it from her until I got a highlighter-yellow Sports Walkman, probably for my birthday. A few years later, a blue Panasonic Shockwave (a Sports Walkman knockoff) became my go-to device for the better part of the next decade.
All told, Sony sold over 200 million cassette players, 400 million in the Walkman line if you include disc and digital players. It was only discontinued in 2010, fully displaced in the ecosystem by the inevitable Apple iPod.
Its legacy is hard to overstate. As Shuhei Hosokawa put it at the end of his essay about the Walkman Effect, whether or not we choose to listen to music privately while in public, we can’t escape the “secret theatre” in which everyone is now assumed to live. “Even when one switches off, or leaves it behind, theatrical effects are still active,” he writes. We can’t escape our role in the urban play, as either spectator, or actor, or both.
“The show must go on, till the death of the gadget-object.”
This is part four of a series devoted to exploring what I call “The Long Eighties”. This is the extended decade between 1979 to 1993, which, as I read it, marked the last days of analog culture and our full transition to a fully digital society. You can read the first posts here and here and here. As always, thanks for reading and please, if you like this, I’d appreciate you sharing it with anyone who might it enjoyable as well. — ap