By Kevin O’Sullivan
There are two ways to write about the thirtieth anniversary of the Walkman. The first is the survey history: examining its cultural significance, from its birth as an escape from the aural and visual assault of modern Japanese society and wholehearted adoption in the West, to its numerous imitations, reincarnations and digitisations, from Walkman to Discman to Minidiscman to mp3 player to iPod. That history would lead to an examination of its broader impact, revolutionising the nature of social interaction in modern society, with a side look – or room for another weighty tome – on how it has changed an art form, transforming recorded music from a solitary experience (often in dark teenage bedrooms soundtracked by the wisdom of a Billy Corgan or Kurt Cobain) to the inescapable (and increasingly banal?) background noise of contemporary living and concurrent rise of the loud=good effect to the detriment of nuance and the annoyance of commuters worldwide.
But that might seem a little bit boring, a little academic, a little lifeless, so here’s the second option: the micro-history, using personal experience to analyse broader patterns of change. I remember my first Walkman, a Christmas present at the age of ten, accompanied by Now 23 (the good: Tasmin Archer, Arrested Development; the bad: INXS, Freddie Mercury; the ugly: Billy Ray Cyrus, The Shamen, East 17). The next few years were spent perfecting my skills at pressing record between the end of the radio dj’s spiel and the beginning of the song. In the silence between the tracks you could hear the echoes of side B or, if you had recorded over that BASF-90 cassette one too many times, the screeching of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ seeping through the quieter moments of Nick Drake warbling about a ‘Pink Moon’.
But that personal experience told something more about the Walkman’s social impact. Music became a conversational currency, the art of mixtape-making a method of connection, of conversation, of flirtation (see the brilliant Cassette from my Ex site). The Discman and all its attendant difficulties, I must admit, passed me by, but I was an early – and perhaps one of the only – adopter of the Minidisc, a sadly lost format, symbol of the speed of technological change in the latter part of the 1990s.
As times changed, lifestyles changed. The boom begat increased consumption and greed and the desire to own and horde ever-increasing volumes of ‘stuff’ exploded. The 60-minute cassette was replaced by the 90-minute, both were surpassed by the CD-R, and the world of music came to revolve around nanos, shuffles and the rush to fill a 120GB flash-drive with everything from Genesis’s greatest hits to those elusive Bob Dylan out-takes downloaded but never listened to. The bust, when it came, was simple: music was/is everywhere, everyone’s got an opinion, everyone’s got a soundtrack to their daily lives, and people, in their droves (well, at least until they ran out of money), have returned to live music, the search for an experience that’s uniquely theirs and cannot be repeated. In a wonderfully inevitable post-modern twist, however, thousands of concert goers have come full circle, borrowing once again from the Japanese – tourists this time – by spending their time trying to get the best photograph on a shaky phone or camera, recording inaudible never-to-be-watched videos and blurring the line of what’s experienced and what’s to be experienced at some later date, and providing terabytes of material for future cultural historians to wade through (if they can be bothered).
So how does my micro-history end? By learning the lessons of the past, of course. In the last two years I’ve started listening to my music more and more on vinyl, driving me in another modern cultural path: the search for individuality and the very middle-class pursuit of consumer snobbery. Plus, it sounds a hell of a lot better.