IT’S 1989. You’re in the middle seat of a Chevrolet Astro minivan, flanked on either side by your screaming siblings. Dad is driving. Oh god, he’s air-drumming on the wheel to “Smoke on the Water.” Again. You look down and see your backpack and your heart swells just a little because a device in that bag is your ticket out of here. Janine K gave you a mixtape of songs by The Cure and said they would change your life. The cassette is already in the Walkman deck. You pop on headphones, press play, and crank up the volume. Hello, freedom.
It’s hard to remember a time before we had the option to curate the playlist of our own minds. We are simply accustomed now to experiencing music in this deeply personal, albeit solitary, way. We disappear into headphones, stream a song via smartphone from the intangible, infinite web, creating a sonic landscape that mirrors our mood. We walk around the grocery store in Beyoncé-land.
But that wasn’t always the case. In her new book Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow analyzes two major shifts in perspective associated with the 1979 birth of the first solo listening device, the Walkman. First, music becomes a personal experience, and second, music becomes immersive, a means to override — or even negate — the sounds of one’s immediate environment. Listening to music in private was not a new concept, of course, nor was the ability to take music on the road (à la the boom box). However, the idea of making the private experience of music a public phenomenon was groundbreaking. In that sense, the Walkman redefined music: it was a revolutionary tool that offered listeners a new kind of freedom. Music technology today still riffs on the basic concept of the Walkman, only now we have digital access to nearly every recorded song.
To set the stage for the Walkman’s rise, Tuhus-Dubrow takes us to postwar Japan, in a ramshackle office with a leaking roof. Two men are working with umbrellas over their desks. Their names are Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, the founders of Sony and eventual fathers of the Walkman. Personal Stereo is the wild story of the ingenious brotherhood of Ibuka and Morita, of Japan’s ascent from financial ruin to the second largest economy in the world, and of the subsequent pushback from the United States against Japanese-made products. It’s also the story of the “Me Generation” of the 1970s, as well as the exercise craze of the ’80s, and all the anxiety and nostalgia implicit in the beginning and end of an era.
Personal Stereo is the latest entry in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, which focuses on the hidden lives of ordinary things. The short book is divided into three chapters — “Novelty,” “Norm,” and “Nostalgia” — which together trace a narrative arc that mirrors the lifespan of a zeitgeist technology turned obsolete. Sub-sections within each chapter have evocative titles like “Trapping sound,” “Remember Pearl Harbor,” and — my personal favorite — “Home taping is killing music.” (One can almost hear record label executives in the age of digital streaming laughing out loud at that last title.) Tuhus-Dubrow illuminates a web of stories connected to the Walkman, her references as ubiquitous as its users. She takes us to a mountain in wintry Switzerland where Andreas Pavel, who would later win a lawsuit against Sony, played music for his lover on his jerry-rigged personal stereo while the snow fell silently around them. She quotes Tom Wolfe and Allan Bloom, along with her own buddy who had his Walkman stolen. After finishing Personal Stereo, I found myself wondering about the secret lives of every object around me, as if each device were whispering, “Oh, I am much so more than meets the eye.”
The most haunting theme Tuhus-Dubrow treats is contemporary nostalgia for analog technology. In 2015, the National Audio Company reported the best year of cassette sales since 1969. Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth, claims he only listens to music on cassette, and many artists today elect to release music exclusively on tape. Questioning her own nostalgia, Tuhus-Dubrow tackles the murky issue of why consumers would hold on to this outdated technology. Why commemorate an obsolete device? Tuhus-Dubrow suggests we are nostalgic for the Walkman not because it reminds us of a particular time and place, or an early taste of freedom, nor because it was pivotal in defining the spirit of an age, but because we may secretly long for boundaries in a world of limitless access. Perhaps we crave the singular focus that the Walkman’s simplicity forced on us: listen to this one Pearl Jam tape all the way home, because that’s all you’ve got. Tuhus-Dubrow speculates that we miss the time when we could actually touch music — when we had to fumble with a wonky device through a maze of fast-forwarding, rewinding, fast-forwarding again until the click: that sweet spot somewhere mid-tape, the beginning of our favorite song.
As with most generation-defining forms of technology, consumers had conflicting opinions about the Walkman. Because of the newfound personal freedom it offered, the Walkman was considered a threat, antisocial and amoral. “Walkman’s Oblivion” was likened to the escape of taking drugs or dissociating into a film-like hyper-reality. People who chose to withdraw into the private world of their personal stereos, hips gyrating down the street to invisible music, were labeled selfish, hermetic, or just plain crazy. “The history of technology,” Tuhus-Dubrow writes, “is in part the story of normal people starting to do things that used to be considered signs of insanity.” The Walkman’s origin story is as curious as the slew of contradictions surrounding its reception. This little device was seen as simultaneously a quintessential symbol of the United States and everything that’s wrong with the country, a tool both of laziness and of hyper-productivity (think: exercise craze), as well as a ubiquitous symbol of style and status.
Tuhus-Dubrow is a master researcher and synthesizer. It would appear that she has left no Walkman-related stone unturned. That said, if I could request a hidden bonus track to Personal Stereo, I would wish for more of her insightful musings on the mixtape, a phenomenon responsible for more excited swooning, long-shot lyrical (mis)interpretations, and make-out sessions than any other music delivery mechanism. Surely there is a connection to be made between the Walkman’s redefinition of music as personal and the art of curating a music mix specifically for your crush. If the Walkman had never come into being, would it have occurred to us to select and organize songs with such uniquely personal intention? Tuhus-Dubrow does touch on a mix of her own creation, including a stellar lineup of R.E.M. and Beat Happening, but it would be fascinating to read more of her thoughts on the subject. Then again, maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic for Janine K’s mix of The Cure, the one that truly set me free.
In July 2012, for approximately 45 seconds, I erroneously believed that I owned New York City. This brief moment accompanied a runner’s high, as I jogged alone along the Hudson, earbuds blasting “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Sure, the exercise-induced endorphin rush contributed to my delusion, but the truth is I couldn’t have approached that moment of ecstasy had it not been for the ability to disappear into my personal stereo. At the time, I never would have credited the Walkman for my elation, but thanks to Tuhus-Dubrow, an elegant, engaging storyteller who unpacks complex social and political concepts with clarity and panache, I know better now. Personal Stereo is a joy to read.
Carissa Stolting is the founder of Left Bank Artists, an artist management company based in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a contributing poet to the podcast Versify, a publication of PRX, The Porch Writers’ Collective, and Nashville Public Radio.