For some of us, it's a freezer-chilled beer, snug in a koozie. For others, it's a soak in a hot tub or a rendezvous with a vibrator. We all have those rituals: that one treat that brings us an interlude of reliable, unalloyed bliss. Anticipation of it is delicious; obstacles to it make you feel like Christian Bale on the set of Terminator Salvation.
For me, as a teenager, that ritual was an excursion with my Walkman. In preparation for a walk or a bus or train ride, I'd choose a tape that matched my mood or seemed likely to improve it. Then I'd press the Walkman's "eject" button and carefully slide in the rectangular plastic cassette, with its two holes like eyes. When I pressed "play," the tape's brown ribbon would start its steady motion. And the foam-covered headphones would release melodies and voices into my ears.
This was the 1990s. Cassettes in heavy rotation included albums by Nirvana, the Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr. And of course mixtapes, each with a meticulously curated sequence of my favorite songs, from REM's "Superman" to Beat Happening's "Indian Summer," along with the occasional Madonna or Michael Jackson hit. Sometimes the moments between songs were marked by a click or an awkwardly long pause, or even a stray fragment of a laugh. I came to anticipate these sounds, in the same way that, as one song neared its end, I would begin to hear the opening chords of the next in my head.
The summer between middle school and high school, my friends and I underwent a metamorphosis. In eighth grade, we had shopped at the Gap and sprayed our bangs into firm, crunchy crescents. In ninth grade, we abandoned the Gap for the Salvation Army. We swore off Aqua Net, and the boldest among us replaced it with Manic Panic. I canceled my subscription to Seventeen and reread each issue of Sassy until I committed whole paragraphs to memory.
Our attachment to our phones seems born of anxiety and tinged with ambivalence; our love for our Walkmans was pure.
We proudly identified as "alternative." But by this time, with Nirvana on Top 40 charts and the cover of Rolling Stone, alternative music had gone mainstream. Even so, I believed that I loved it more passionately than my classmates who also listened to the Dave Matthews Band and wore clothes that hadn't been previously owned by strangers. I knew Nirvana's lyrics better than Kurt Cobain himself. I devoured interviews with Kurt (naturally, as far as I was concerned, we were on a first-name basis) and sought out his favorite bands — the more obscure the better. I may have listened to that Jesus Lizard EP approximately once, but it definitely had pride of place in my music collection.
With my Walkman, the music was all mine. Kurt — or Michael Stipe or J Mascis — was right there in my ear canal. My Walkman offered a jailbreak out of ordinary life. Long bus rides were transformed from dreary nuisances into occasions for euphoria. Walks were punctuated by furtive quasi-dance moves. But my rapture also had a flip side: the dread that gripped me when I realized that my batteries were running out. The voices would stretch and deepen. Madonna would become a baritone. I would be forced to endure the rest of my journey without a soundtrack.
These days our gadgets offer plenty of opportunities to sneak away from the mundane time and place we happen to inhabit. But those moments of escape — the witty text, the cute kitten photo — are almost constant, intermingling with our lives. Our attachment to our phones seems born of anxiety and tinged with ambivalence; our love for our Walkmans was pure.
I can't help missing that clunky old device. There's something more human about technologies that have an intuitive connection between what they look like and what they do. When the tape ribbon moves, the music plays; when the ribbon is wrinkled, the music sounds garbled. This logic is the logic of our own bodies, with organs and limbs whose motions are connected to their functions, and which are susceptible to injury and gradual breakdown.
When the iPod arrived, in 2001, it vastly expanded our ability to tailor our daily soundtrack to our moods and whims. But having all those choices made it harder to give ourselves over to any given song. It was like being at the best party ever, always glancing over the shoulder of the person in front of you to see who else was there. Now, with our smartphones, dead time — waiting for the bus, waiting in line, and so on — may be filled by music but also by checking Facebook or reading the latest headlines. While the Walkman fended off boredom during those same moments, its effect on our minds could not have been more different. It was a machine for daydreaming.
For all of these reasons, I recently started listening to a Walkman again. A friend gave me one that he found when cleaning out his office, and I rescued a smattering of old cassettes from my parents' attic. Lately I've been favoring Bleach, Nirvana's first album. Kurt is 22 again, screaming in my ear again. And I'm singing along under my breath to "Blew" and "Big Cheese" again, scrunching my face into those embarrassing plaintive expressions you make when you're really into a song. I don't know if the funny looks I get are because of those expressions, or because I'm wearing a device that was manufactured circa 1983. But for the most part, I'm too absorbed in the music to care.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is the author of Personal Stereo, a cultural history of the Walkman, from which this article was adapted.