How banal to remember commentators on commentators telling us the Walkman antisocially isolated individuals in their own sound bubble. These were the same commentators telling us the ’80s were about greed. As a practitioner of metacommentary, I can advise you not to believe anyone but me.

I spent umpteen hundreds on any number of Walkmen. (This was the era when Sony’s product names were slightly wrong yet magical.) Their tape decks all died quickly. The more pocketable hence cooler the Walkman, the shorter its life expectancy. Aiwa’s tape mechanisms were always more reliable (I had a great little component stereo by them), but Aiwa was never à la mode.

In the golden hour in which your Walkman actually worked, the operating constraints were, first, batteries, but more relevantly sequential playback – and headphones. Those were all conspicuous/intrusive/scratchy, with the Koss Porta Pro (not a magical name) coming equipped with its own tension-relieving pads below the temples and a rapier-sharp bare aluminum headband more suited to a haybaler. (A bald guy who looked straight out of the Berlin industrial scene always used to ride the 80 bus in Montreal wearing those things, which you can still buy.)

But inevitably you were condemned to listen to Side A of an album in sequence, or Side B. (Worse, you might start mid-stream.) Plus you probably bought the LP version to play at home.

Wearing a Walkman was like striding through a 1970s Plexiglas pedestrian overpass. Once you pressed Play or crossed the threshold, your future over the next minutes was preordained, and everybody could see what you were doing.

But since this was the 1980s, every object you touched was real, even if it was plastic (or Plexiglas). The 1980s were the last decade where things mattered because they were genuine, down to the thickest laminate layer on Memphis furniture.

Dematerialized music begat invisible podcasts

“All this has happened before” is one of this project’s enduring themes. When music was dematerialized to MP3s, commentators spent years telling us how much we had lost, though they fudged the details. LPs were always a tactile experience, while CDs were merely packages unless co-designed by the Pet Shop Boys.

Nor did they note the other reason (beyond higher fidelity) why you also owned the LP of each tape cassette: You could at least pick up and drop the needle to listen to just one song. (Wasn’t that the raison d’être of the LP’s little brother [the 45] and its fraternal twins [10″ and 12″ singles]?) Try listening to exactly and only one song in iTunes and see how the rest of your day goes.

Podcasts at no point had a material component or package. Ninety-plus percent of the time, even podcasts’ “album art” is a disgrace, and nobody even bothers to set up custom art for each episode (or within one at MP3 landmarks).

Your pocketable smartphone and your wireless headphones (this means your iPhone and AirPods) allow you to sashay down the boulevard all but invisibly listening to a podcast the choice of which is nobody else’s goddamn business. In wintertime, if your ears are covered, as by a toque or headband, and if your phone’s in your pocket as God intended, you can invisibly and comfortably listen to your podcast.

Music dematerialized, but podcasts were never more than ether. The ultimate case of an unseen companion whispering in one’s ears, as if from a Victorian novel but comfortably happening to us right now, the podcast you listen to with nobody noticing is the Walkman melting into your own humours.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2021.03.24 11:47. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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