The Walkman Is Dead, Long Live the Walkman

Personal Stereo explores novelty, norm, and nostalgia.

Personal Stereo

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 152 pages
Author: Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-09

Like many of the last in line for Generation X, I loved cassette tapes and now I miss them dearly. But digging in a little deeper, this may really be more about the portability of cassettes and less about the tapes themselves -- something I didn’t realize until I dove into Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo, one of the many fine installments in Bloombury’s Object Lessons series.

Somewhere in a file cabinet in my office, in a darkened corner containing all the treasured but now useless junk of my teenage years, I still have my Sony Walkman. It was the yellow “sport” edition, its little plexiglass window has fallen out and its original gray and yellow earphones are now glitchy enough to warrant introduction to a trash bin.

That little cassette player saw most of America from a window seat on a Greyhound bus when I was on tour as a slam poet. It saw hundreds of rotations of Ani DiFranco’s early tracks, was best friends with a Neil Diamond greatest hits compilation I stole from my mother, and delivered an endless stream of '80s mixes that I cribbed off the radio a few minutes at a time throughout most of high school. On the road without much money, I would instantly pony up at the nearest gas station for fresh batteries or earphones when they were needed. Simply put, from the moment it first landed in my possession, I understood that a portable stereo was an absolute necessity.

How did any kid ever get through a family holiday without occasionally slipping off to blast Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” for a party of one? How did any teenager ever fall asleep without drowning out the parental units shouting at each other downstairs? How did any young adult ever work up the courage to do anything without first pressing "pause" on a personal theme song? I memorized those tapes, but also the shape and feel of my personal stereo. I knew its precise weight, how to balance it on a knee or the corner of a tray table, where exactly to press on the deck to keep that one slightly mangled tape from getting eaten alive. I knew its battery life calculations and when to Q-Tip the lint out of the reels.

A personal stereo is a kind of companion animal. You come to know it as an extension of yourself and its tribulations are a reflection of your own inner demons. Tuhus-Debrow deftly tracks these precious machinations through global culture, using three chapters that create a history of the personal stereo: novelty, norm, and nostalgia. Beginning with its novelty, she charts the rise of Sony during World War II and the creative partnership that ultimately birthed the first Walkman. There’s an interesting detour into the strangely poetic case of Andrea Pavel, a Brazilian audio technician who also claims to have invented it.

As a novelty headed aggressively toward becoming a norm, the personal stereo was both ubiquitous and hotly debated. Tuhus-Dubrow examines early advertising, the moneyed culture of the '80s, and some urban myths to explain how the personal stereo was creating conditions for maximum isolation of individuals while simultaneously achieving an utterly new type of shared cultural experience. Remember the first time you ever heard of somebody dying -- meandering into traffic or something -- because they had on those headphones and weren't paying attention to the world around them? And never mind how many times your mother said it was bad manners to have that thing on while conversation was taking place all around you.

I look at kids nowadays -- with their iPod earbuds sprouting slyly out of their collars or bluetooth Beats wrapped fiercely around their heads -- and I'm inexplicably sad for them, that they don’t know the pleasure of having to lug around the bulky, limited technology we had for transmitting music on the go. Having access to bottomless streaming services or 16GB of downloads just isn’t the same. Tuhus-Dubrow tracks the ongoing evolution of personal stereo norms along with the nostalgia impulse for the clunky old technology. A Walkman is the terrain of hipsters now, I guess, or a relic found in sci-fi movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.

The personal stereo is a site of anxiety and also fetishism. It’s had a long life as a commodity and also as a therapy. Tuhus-Dubrow’s valuable historical and pop cultural analysis provides a genuine yet evenhanded portrait of all that has been loved and lost in the way the personal stereo has impacted public spaces and social communication. Personal Stereo is a clear-eyed study on the way this technology continues to disrupt, for better and for worse.

I finished the book not so much wanting to bury my head in the sand and lament our collective future as I wanted to fish around in my old file cabinet and say hello to my ancient Walkman. We had good times together, and it got me through some pretty bad times, too. After all these years, I still can’t just throw it away.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.