Consider the Boombox: On The History of Mobile Music

As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, listening to music used to be more difficult. The concerned listener could go to a concert hall or attend a swank Venetian soiree (if you were lucky enough to be invited), but chances to hear music performed by musicians were few and far between. In the past, you might have had the option of gathering your family around the harpsichord to sing songs of your youth, but while that may have been joyful, it certainly wasn’t professional music.

So, historically speaking, an interested listener existed within a weird limbo in terms of seeking out and enjoying professional music. You might be able to hear pros, but you certainly couldn’t go to a concert where they were playing Beethoven’s 7th and stand up and shout a request for Eroica as one would for “Freebird.” And, while you could play what you wanted to in your house, (including the “Freebird” of the 18th-century, “My Free Bird Died Of The Plague, She Did”) it wasn’t the same. Not until the rise of modern technology could an interested individual hear whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted to.

The phonograph and record player allowed us to put on our favorites, again and again; they allowed for professional music to come into our homes. The 8-track, as absurd as it seems now, brought music into our cars, with the wild yawp of the open road. It was no less amazing then as it is outdated now. However, even with the 8-track, you couldn’t really travel with your music. Fortunately, that was about to change. The 1970s and 1980s saw a couple of inventions that presaged the startling mobile tech we have now, making listening to music both a more private and public affair, and giving us two models of our future technology: the boombox and the walkman.

Boomboxes. A symbol not just of the time, but also of the future. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Taking it to The Street: The Beginning of the Boombox Era and the Mobile Music Revolution

Any movie from or about the 80s will inevitably show someone walking jauntily down a city street blasting a huge radio resting on their shoulders (depending on what kind of movie it is, another character might pull out a gun and tell them to turn it down. The 80s were  weird and reactionary time). Boomboxes exist in this depiction as part of the loud, chaotic, background; they made the streets come alive with music.

Listen to “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” by LL Cool J if you want a taste of what audio technology was like back then. Imagine a jumble of loud sounds, a kind of angry but passionate thrum reverberating through the streets. Music was something to be claimed as yours, and to be shown off. It evoked the pain of urban decay that grew from the 70s and spread into the 80s. It was defiance.

It was also mobile. It presaged the technology that we have now by depicting the mobile music experience as both individual and communal. It was sharing a playlist before that was even thought possible.

Music Everywhere: The Rise of the Walkman

There was another key element of the music of this time, and that was the walkman. On July 1st, 1979, Sony unveiled their newest product to not-so-great acclaim. It was a little box with some weird headphones into which one could place a cassette. It didn’t sell right away. People weren’t really sure what to do with it. The first month it seemed like just another novelty item from Japan that would fade away without a thought.

Shortly after that, though, the Walkman took off, and in a big way. As it turns out, people want their music mobile. It’s as if it took a few weeks for people to realize what they had: the ability to bring their music around with them anywhere and everywhere. On a walk or a jog, while riding the train to work, on campus or between classes (or in classes). It was a real revolution.

It was portable music. It was inside your head, not all around. It was like being in a concert, only in the private sanctuary of your own daily routine. Nowadays, we take that private experience for granted, and we shouldn’t. If people didn’t see the power and the promise of this kind of silent technology at the time, the whole portable revolution might not have ever happened.

The 70s and 80s were truly strange times. What counted as innovation appeared awkward and clunky, but this technology helped shape the rest of our lives. Innovators took what people liked and turned that information into future trends. Music became something that we heard and something that we cared about because it was something that was ours.

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