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The soundtrack of our lives

Anniversary commemoration — and cultural history — of the once-mighty Walkman

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When Sony introduced the Walkman 30 years ago this month, it was, in a sense, already obsolete: Both Sony and Philips were already well on their way to developing the compact discs that would make doing paper-clip surgery on your favorite REO Speedwagon cassette mere fodder for misplaced nostalgia. Plus, a tape recorder that didn't record? How was that progress, except for the companies selling tape recorders that did record, and for record labels selling pre-recorded cassettes?

As New York University management professor William H. Starbuck recounted in the International Journal of Technology Management in 1996, even many Sony executives were dubious about the device's commercial potential. It cost more to produce than its teen target market was likely to spend. While Sony chairman Akio Morito championed the Walkman and ordered an initial run of 60,000 units, managers in the tape-recording division, fearing the company would lose money on every sale, secretly halved the order to 30,000.

Fast-forward 30 years. You may not be able to find many pre-recorded cassettes at your local music retailer anymore. If your local music retailer still exists, that is. You can, however, still buy a Sony Walkman cassette player — and myriad descendents and spin-offs that bear the brand. Needless to say, those skeptical managers in the Sony tape-recording division severely underestimated the demand for personalized mobile music.

Your cassette pet

The first Walkman weighed in at a solid 13.7 ounces (plus 1.75 ounces for the headphones). With its strong square lines and metallic blue finish, it was almost as streamlined as today's surge protectors. To emphasize its portability, Morito reportedly had a shirt custom-tailored with an oversized chest pocket in which to carry the 3.5-by-5.5-by-1.25-inch device.

Now, of course, any high-tech gadget that's not tiny enough to pose a choking hazard to small children is not truly sexy. But in 1979, stuffing a high-fidelity stereo into a shirt pocket — even a deviously engineered shirt pocket — constituted a miracle of sorts.

At a time when microcomputers still appealed mainly to hardcore spreadsheet fetishists, the Walkman was the sexiest piece of personal electronics ever devised. It was a piece of the future you could hold in your hand.

The Walkman also provided a personalized soundtrack with which to dramatize your life. It was your faithful companion, an anthropomorphized buddy/servant who motivated you, palliated you, and simply kept you company throughout the day. It was your cassette pet.

Six months after its debut in Japan, the device reached American shores. It cost $200, or $589 in 2009 dollars. At Bloomingdale's, the New York Times reported, there was a four- to eight-week waiting list to obtain one. Impatient trendsetters offered to pay as much as $300 for display models.

Even with its high price, the Walkman was ultimately a leveling device. A few years earlier, portable stereo systems — boomboxes — had liberated those who wanted to take their music with them everywhere unshackled by the tyranny of Top 40 playlists.

But boomboxes offered sonic freedom only to those strong enough to lug a battery-eating briefcase around and intimidating enough to impose their love of the Village People on others without censure. For anyone with $200, however, the Walkman delivered a more private aural sovereignty.

Appetite for distraction

Despite its status as a "personal" stereo system, Sony presented the Walkman as a social device: The original model featured two headphone jacks, along with an orange "hotline" button that allowed two users to talk to each other over whatever tape was currently playing. This feature, Sony executives believed, would keep the Walkman from being perceived as selfish.

Instead, the Walkman more effectively served as a portable "Do Not Disturb" sign. Take a book on the subway to discourage interaction with fellow travelers, and you were likely to inspire inquiries about the book. Take a Walkman, and you were suddenly as inaccessible as a lone car commuter protected by the glass and steel of his GM sedan.

In grocery-store lines, school cafeterias, airports and even college lecture halls, a new sense of privacy came into existence. Even among family members, it didn't matter if you were at the dinner table, in the living room, in the marital bed — with a pair of Walkman headphones clamped to your head, you were clearly otherwise engaged.

Or, to hear critics tell it, disengaged. While initial accounts of the Walkman often touted it as a civil alternative to boomboxes, the "growing headphone movement," as the New York Times ominously dubbed it in 1981, prompted charges that the new devices were "socially alienating" and "destructive of relationships." No doubt this was true in some cases — but if retreating to the harrowing cocoon of Huey Lewis and the News for hours on end represented a viable means of escape for one half of an unhappy marriage, that union was already too far gone to save.

And what, really, was so great about the random moments of social interaction the Walkman deterred? Except for affairs, small talk about the weather, and the occasional plan to outsource the murder of one's spouse, not much ever came from talking to strangers on a train.

Prior to the Walkman and its spawn, people disengaged in public by blanking their faces and shutting off their minds. Huge chunks of life were spent this way, in zombie mode, doing nothing productive, nothing pleasurable.

With a Walkman, every moment could be, if not ideal, then at least more ambient, more aligned with one's particular tastes, more fulfilling. It made us realize we didn't have to just sit on a bus, as dead to the world as a plastic plant — or even worse, reading. We could be listening to Billy Joel!

And if we could be listening to Billy Joel, couldn't we also be playing video games, or watching movies, or laboriously tapping out 140-character messages to strangers on keyboards the size of a business card? And if we could do such things while stuck on a bus, or waiting in line at a grocery store, surely we could do them while stuck in our cubicles at work, or eating lunch with our less-interesting friends.

Indeed, as soon as the Walkman hit store shelves, the looming promise of our highly mobile, super-empowered, hyper-productive future grew clearer: Never again would we have to endure the tedium of doing one thing at once.

scene@csindy.com

Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for Las Vegas Weekly and Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor. His work has appeared in more than 70 publications worldwide.

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