Headphones have become a crucial appendage of our bodies. It is such a day to day necessity that vehement protest came befell the new iPhone for its lack of a headphone jack.
But for all of its regularity in our modern landscape, listening with headphones provided what cultural critic Rey Chow calls a “revolution in listening”. Chow writes about this revolution in her 1990 essay “Listening Otherwise, Music Miniaturized: A Different Type of Question about Revolution”.
First, headphones provide a means to accentuate the individual experience while blocking everything else out:
“[W]hile the music is hidden from others because it is compacted, this hiddenness is precisely what allows me to hear it full blast…This is the freedom to be deaf to the loudspeakers of history”.
And yet even with that pushing away from the world, headphones do not provide complete isolation:
“We do not return to individualized or privatized emotions when we use the Walkman: rather the Walkman’s artificiality makes us aware of the impending presence of the collective, which summons us with the infallibility of a sleepwalker”.
Sleepwalker is a fitting description. Listening with headphones seems to be in between two poles. Chow takes this idea further. The Walkman is not only an intermediary between two states. It is a barrier:
“What the Walkman provides is the possibility of a barrier, a blockage between ‘me’ and the world, so that, as in moments of undisturbed sleep, I can disappear as a listener playing music”.
Individuality and collectivity cannot bloom because the headphones check them both. Oddly enough, the barrier that holds each pole back is made of its opposite. Individuality cannot fully exist because the Walkman is a product of the collective and because one often walks around in public with them. Collectivity cannot fully exist since headphones remove the music from public consumption into the ears of an individual.
Is this why headphones are a “revolution in listening”? The fact that its use puts one in a state of limbo?
On second thought, think of listening at a concert. The barrier Chow associated with the Walkman is also present in this experience. It is not only ‘me’ at a concert because of those present, reminding one of the world. It is not only ‘world’ at a concert because of the unique subjective perspective one has in receiving the music at that time (location, state of mind, etc).
Could, then, the barrier between ‘me’ and ‘world’ actually describe all instances of listening to music?