On Walkmans and habitual music-listening

Confession time: I do not own an mp3 player.

Nope, if I want to listen to music, I have to be in my car or at my computer or someplace I can plug in my small but better-than-nothing boombox.

And I’m OK with that.

I had a Walkman or two when I was growing up, but since then I’ve never really felt the need to own a portable music-playing device. For those of you who don’t remember the 1980s, a Walkman was a portable battery-operated gadget that usually included both an AM/FM radio and a cassette player and that allowed you to listen to music through headphones so you weren’t inflicting Motley Crue or LL Cool J or Weird Al or whoever on the people around you. Walkmans went through AA batteries faster than a competitive eater goes through hot dogs, and they usually ate tapes after too many plays as well, but we still thought they were a pretty neat thing to have.

(Also, a cassette was a rectangular plastic thing that could hold a recording of music or anything else audible on a long strip of magnetic tape that wound from one spool to another within the cassette. Cassettes broke a lot, but they were versatile and convenient for their time.)

But the thing was, I didn’t actually use my Walkman all that often. If I wanted to listen to music at home, I’d use a radio or boom box or the home stereo or whatever was convenient. And it wasn’t often that I wanted to listen to music on the go, either–though on family car trips the Walkmans our parents bought my sister and me (probably for this very reason) spared us many a squabble over control of the car stereo. I like music plenty, but most of the time my music jones was satisfied by what I’d heard on the radio as I was waking up and what I’d play on the stereo when I got home from school, and I didn’t need much else.

One thing I noticed about Walkmen was that headphones tended to isolate people. Any given person who was wearing a pair may or may not have been trying to cut off human contact, but people in general were much more reluctant to try to speak to headphone wearers than to other folks. Sure, sometimes not having to deal with people is nice, but most of the time I felt like I wanted to at least be available and approachable if somebody (or at least somebody I didn’t actively dislike) wanted to talk to me. Even today, on the public buses, earphones send a signal that a person doesn’t want to be approached. I half suspect that some people just wear the earphones without even listening to anything, just to ward off other humans.

Another thing I noticed was that, for some people, listening to music or at least having some playing in the background seemed to be a compulsion, a need. The first place this became painfully apparent to me was when a high-school friend confessed to a group of us that she listened to music all the time because she was afraid of silence. It hadn’t occurred to me that silence was a thing you could be afraid of, but she got me thinking about why someone might have that fear and what it must be like. The second place was in one of my first post-college jobs, which was in an office where we were subjected all day to a certain local radio station, probably chosen for its inoffensive song selection. (Note to self: “How that station represents everything that is abominable about radio today” would make a good topic for a post.) It was as though the denizens of the office had collectively agreed that even tiresome repetitions of the same grating pop hits were better than an hour without music (or even, heaven forbid, different music).

Now, different people like different things, and I’m not out to criticize anyone’s taste in music or anyone’s preference for where or when or how often they listen to it. There’s nothing at all wrong with Walkmans or radios or mp3 players or music. Do not take my own habits as either typical or prescriptive; you do what works for you.

What I do want to encourage you to do is to think about your music-listening habits and why they are what they are. Do you typically listen to music simply because you want to, or because you feel like you need to? If you feel like you need to listen to music, why do you suppose that is? Does it provide some benefit, like helping you stay awake or motivated, or is it a way of avoiding something, like silence or conversation? (Some needs, after all, are legitimate needs; others are symptoms of a bigger problem.)

If listening to music is simply a source of pleasure for you, well and good. But if it’s an addiction or a response to the fear of something, seeing that fact is the first step to freeing yourself from what holds you prisoner. And if it’s a way to avoid interacting with people, maybe it’s time to stop shutting out the world–and depriving the rest of us of what you have to offer.



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