Goodbye, Walkman

Sony is shutting down production of its revolutionary portable music player.

Sony Walkman

Sony announced on Monday that it is shutting down production of the Walkman. Talk about ending with a whimper: Who knew that portable cassette players were still being made at all?

But, please, a little respect. As bulky, cheesy, and crude as they may seem in an age of iPods, iPads, and smartphones, the Walkman players were a revolutionary product—perhaps the seminal innovation in the popular culture of our time. The initial concept for the gadget came from the company’s co-chairman Akio Morita, who wanted to listen to his favorite operas on his frequent flights across the Pacific. Its significance, however, turned out to lie not so much in its portability as in its offer of isolation and autonomy—transforming not only the way we listen to music, but the way we view our place in the world.

Consider this: The first Walkman model, the TPS-L2, introduced in the summer of 1979, was equipped with two headphone jacks. Sony’s ads showed pairs of very different people—for instance, a short old Japanese man and a tall, young American woman—both wearing headphones plugged into the same Walkman. The TPS-L2 even featured a button that let the sharers filter out the music for a moment, so they could talk to each other through the headphones.

“Up until the Walkman, listening to music was a shared experience,” Bob Neil, a Sony vice president told me back in 1999, when I was writing a story for the Boston Globe about the player’s 20th anniversary. Nobody could imagine people buying something that would let them listen all alone; the whole notion would surely strike the people around them as “rude.”

It was a surprise, and not just to Sony executives, when people were suddenly seen, in large numbers, strolling down city sidewalks, each of them happily cut off from the world, enveloped in the self-selected private soundtrack of his or her life. But the implications of this phenomenon were well-understood at the time—feared by some (anomie!), cheered by others (liberation!).

The magazine Christianity Today warned that the Walkman would tempt youth with “still one more competitor to the voice of God.” Allan Bloom, in his best seller The Closing of the American Mind, imagined a 13-year-old boy “doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones,” a practice certain to turn his life into a “masturbational fantasy,” for as long as such boys “have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say.”

On the other hand, Ray Chow, in The Cultural Studies Reader, celebrated the Walkman as offering “the freedom to be deaf to the loudspeakers of history” and the means to “sabotage the technology of collectivization with its own instruments.” Sony’s advertising lifted this libertarian lingo, touting the Walkman as an emblem of “personal choice” and “freedom.”

The Walkman wasn’t the first portable-music box. Much earlier, there was the transistor radio with an ear pod; but you were slave to whatever the D.J.s wanted you to hear. There was also the boom box; but you had to carry it and blast its music to everyone in sight. The Walkman, small and light enough to stick inside your pocket, let you hear what you wanted to hear, and only what you wanted to hear, ensconced in your own sonic bubble.

And so, the Walkman ushered in the era of individually customized pop culture on-demand. Before long came 50-channel (then 500-channel) television, TiVo, Napster, iTunes, Pandora, Netflix streaming, and beyond.

The market for these sorts of devices—the “revolution in consumer choice,” some called it—widened and deepened with each new iteration. For instance, in its first 20 years, from 1979 to 1999, the Walkman sold 100 million units. By comparison, just in the past nine years, since its introduction in 2001, Apple’s iPod has sold 277 million units.

Those too young to remember when the Walkman first appeared on city streets three decades ago may find it hard to imagine how strange the phenomenon looked. Take this 1981 article in Money magazine, written in the form of a letter to a friend:

When you were in New York last month, you wondered why some glassy-eyed folks were walking around with headphones wired to little boxes. … Well, after you left, I asked around and learned that we were wrong—they’re not members of some crazy new cult. Those little boxes are portable tape cassette players. It seems that you don’t have to stay home to listen to your stereo these days.

To most people today, the “glassy-eyed folks” are those, like me, who do.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.