Headphones: It’s Called Personal Audio for a Reason

Who can forget their first time?

I’ll always remember mine.

I was 17 years old and it was a Sony Walkman and some foamie headphones.

It was the fall of 1987 and I was listening to Public Enemy’s first studio LP, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, on cassette while I jogged around our suburban neighborhood. The music simultaneously elicited a euphoric frenzy of angry indignation in me while being completely at odds with my white-bread surroundings.

It was angry. Hell, the album was furious. It was inner-city, it was militant – a black nationlist political clarion call. I was white, middle class, and hung on lead rapper Carlton “Chuck D’ Ridenhour ’s every word as he let me know without doubt that PE was “On stereo, never ever mono/On wax, yes, I’m talking about vinyl … For all you/Suckers, liars, your cheap amplifiers/Your crossed up wires are always starting fires…”

What am I talking about?

Taking the music out of my comfortable home, away from the hi-fi that my father had spent years curating, away from the thousands of LPs of his choosing that I happily grew up with, away from the invisible late-night waves of Canadian Public Broadcasting beaming through my bedside AM/FM portable radio. Not because I didn’t love hearing or experiencing music those ways, but they were social endeavours.

This was new and deeply personal music and I was listening to it in my space – my inner space. By discovering rap, hip hop, punk and new wave through bought, or mix tapes that friends made or traded and experiencing it in an insular, individual and controlled environment – through headphones – I traveled a path of political, historical and musical education which could have only had the impact it ended up having because I was blocking out my surroundings when Public Enemy hit me.

I was alone because of headphones and that alone time was invaluable.

It was funny too, because I wouldn’t listen to everything I liked through headphones. I never bought Beatles, Fleetwood Mac or Talking Heads cassettes, but rap and hip hop? Yes. Specifically because I wanted that alone time to hear and process what they were trying to say to me, teach me – educate me.

Some think too much time alone isn’t necessarily a good thing, but I beg to differ. It can be self-illuminating. I’m not saying I always prefer it to spending time with family or friends, going to the movies, concerts or gigs – record shopping! – but, time by oneself is time well spent in my opinion. Especially in these new times of social distancing and quarantines as we have no idea yet how living like this will impact young people, old people – all people. But, I imagine data gathered on how we’ve adapted and evolved to the social stigmatization which the virus has thrust upon us will demonstrate structural changes in the processing and dessimination of information; taking in the world around you by yourself or in very limited group numbers, I would imagine, fundamentally alters our interpretation of that information. Headphones are similar in my opinion.

Taking in music exclusively through headphones, has in my life experience, consistently changed the relationship/attachment/perception I formed with those specific artists/albums/genres I took in alone. That’s not to say I didn’t have exposure to them on two-channel rigs, car stereos, at parties, clubs or on the radio – but it did change how I heard them when the context became that of shared listening. Whenever I hear either of Public Enemy’s first two studio albums (the second is It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back ) I’m instantly transported to the many days, weeks and months I addictively took them in while jogging, skateboarding, snowboarding or just walking home along quiet streets late at night from a girlfriend’s house or a party.

Who here remembers their first time translating a deeper meaning to personal audio? The moment you were able to grok what headphone listening truly meant to you? I’d be happy to hear your stories and share them here for our readers too. Stay safe in these weird times, and perhaps, like me, take solace and inspiration from the frantic scratchings of Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”