Despite the high price, the Walkman was ultimately a leveling device. A few years earlier, portable stereo systems—boomboxes—had liberated those who wanted to take their music with them everywhere from the tyranny of Top 40 playlists. But boomboxes offered sonic freedom only to those who were strong enough to lug a battery-eating briefcase around and intimidating enough to impose their love of The Village People on others without censure. For anyone with $200, however, the Walkman delivered the same aural sovereignty.
In early Walkman marketing efforts and promotional materials, Sony emphasized how the device could enhance leisure activities like roller-skating and bicycling. Echoing R. Crumb's iconic Keep on Truckin' motif, the Walkman's original logo featured four feet emphatically propelling the word "Walkman" along. Despite its status as a "personal" stereo system, Sony also presented the Walkman as a social device: The original model featured two headphone jacks, along with an orange "hotline" button that allowed two users to talk to each other over whatever tape was currently playing. This feature, Sony executives believed, would keep the Walkman from being perceived as selfish.
They shouldn't have worried. Just a few years earlier, after all, Tom Wolfe had dubbed the 1970s the Me Decade. "Have it your way!" Burger King insisted to potential customers. Consumers were eager to turn listening to music into a solitary, immersive experience. And they didn't necessarily want to have to put on a pair of running shoes to enjoy their Walkmans either. Indeed, as much Sony positioned the device as an accessory for the sort of kinetic, upbeat fun that transpired in nominally social contexts, that was only one way to use it.
The Walkman also served as an extremely effective "Do Not Disturb" sign. Take a book on the subway to discourage interaction with fellow travelers, and you were likely to inspire inquiries about the book. Take a Walkman, and you were suddenly as inaccessible as a lone car commuter protected by the glass and steel of his GM sedan. As effective as the Walkman was in pushing us toward Rocky-like moments of transcendence on the treadmill, its most unique attribute was its ability to enhance life's lesser moments.
In grocery store lines, school cafeterias, airport lounge holding pens, boring college lectures, and every other public or semi-public place where blabbermouths with boundary issues once wielded absolute license to accost you, a new sense of privacy came into existence The Walkman was so good at enveloping its users in a no-fly zone of self-containment it even made private life more private. It didn't matter if you were at the dinner table, in the family room, in the marital bed—with a pair of Walkman headphones clamped to your head, you were clearly otherwise engaged.
As RiShawn Biddle suggested in Reason ten years ago on the Walkman's 20th anniversary, making mixtapes for our personal stereo systems (where limited battery life meant zero tolerance for throwaway songs) whetted our appetites for the coming age of interactivity. To further prep us for the way we live now, the Walkman also popularized the notion that downtime was no longer necessary, that we could assuage our restless dissatisfaction with something more nourishing than the thin gruel of "I'd rather be sailing" bumper stickers.
With a Walkman, every moment could be, if not ideal, then at least more ambient, more aligned with one's particular tastes, more fulfilling. It made us realize we didn't have to just sit on a bus, as dead to the world as a plastic plant—or even worse, reading. We could be listening to Billy Joel! And if we could be listening to Billy Joel, couldn't we also be playing videogames, or watching movies, or laboriously tapping out 140-character messages to strangers on keyboards the size of a business card? And if we could do such things while stuck on a bus, or waiting in line at a grocery store, then surely we could do them while stuck in our cubicles at work, or eating lunch with our less interesting friends. Indeed, as soon as the Walkman hit store shelves, the looming promise of our highly mobile, super-empowered, hyper-productive future grew clearer: Never again would we have to endure the tedium of doing one thing at once.