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Time Essay: Portable Music for One and All

7 minute read
Frank Trippett

They are everywhere, and always going full blast. They play nothing but frenzied music, day and night. They are inescapable. The innocent can get battered with jazz at the newsstand, rock at the bus stop and the diabolical thump-and-shriek of disco before and after. “Shake, shake/ Shake your booty” blares forth from one of them, but not quite in time to drown out another one that is roaring out with “Ring my bell/ Ring my bell, my bell/ Ting-a-ling-a-ling.” It is as though the Great God Muzak has berserked out of the dentist’s office and run amuck with all his decibels exposed. Actually, the public tranquility is being regularly murdered by that handy modern convenience, the portable transistor radio. Its proliferation is nothing if not phenomenal.

So, evidently, is its addictiveness. Radio buffs have begun to cling to portables full time as though they were life-support systems. Thus meandering music has become commonplace in every metropolis and conspicuously so in the big ones such as Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. While the portables are played ostensibly for private enjoyment, the music is freely shared with the world—but not always to applause. Indeed, many captive listeners consider the force-fed entertainment an assault. Whatever else it may be, the new wave of unavoidable music is pervasive—and the dial is rarely turned to bring in even the most important news.

The main legions of portable fans are mostly young and predominantly—but not always —black or hispanic. They do not quite add up to a subculture, but they may represent the rise of a new species of radio fan. Their ears are tuned in constantly to what they call the box. Their boxes come in all sizes, with the biggest the size of suitcases and the best equipped with auxiliary tape decks. The fancy status symbols of the genre— Sanyos or Sonys or JVCs— cost up to $400, but for a mere $55 a box-toter can get a General Electric tape model that comes with a shoulder strap, a 5-in. heavy magnet speaker, an automat ic program advance, a variable tone control, an eight-track cassette player and, of course, great promise: It is called Loudmouth II. To the new breed of listener, such equipment has already be gun to seem a natural part of existence, inevitable. Says one of them, young Messenger Anthony Edwards of Manhattan: “You got your box, they got their box, everybody into their own box.

You got to keep the sound moving with you.”

And do they ever keep it moving. They play their boxes at work, at leisure, alone, in crowds. In Chicago, they often gather on the street around somebody’s car at night and party while working out their boxes in ensemble. Their boxes go with them to parks, in elevators, along beaches. On Fire Island, N.Y., a local ordinance against radio sounds on the shore drew forth about 1,000 box-lovers with their music blaring maximally in protest. Boxes go with them on bikes, in recreational skiffs, even on roller skates. In Manhattan’s Central Park, the box phe nomenon has linked up with the roller-skating craze to produce a bizarre form of discoing that not only defies description but se riously discourages it. Box-toters seem insatiable. Affectionate couples, a blaring box snuggled between them, have been ob served moving their lips, presumably yelling sweet nothings at each other over 90 or so decibels of their song. Who needs it?

No, the appropriate question is, why? Or, better yet, why, why, why? Why take a portable everywhere? Why play it so loud? Why play it at all in crowded public places? Only the great, washed middle class offers that simple, singular answer:

the cavalcade of music amounts to a continual bombardment by the surly troops of the underclass. But social scientists have indulged in more intricate thinking. The box brigade’s music, some believe, would seem aggressive only to people unsympathetic to young, poor minority folks. Says Tufts University Sociologist Peter Dreier: “Music is played in public all the time, in shopping centers, record stores and dentists’ offices. Nobody minds. But when poor kids do it, suddenly it’s a problem.”

Other analysts suspect that the music is simply a social comfort to the box-toter, a “security blanket,” in the phrase of Sallie Churchill, a social work professor at the University of Michigan. Or a mode of claiming identity. “They’re invisible people most of the time,” says Sociology Professor Joseph Helfgot of Boston University. “Here is something large and loud that makes them suddenly visible.” It may also be a method of walling off the real world. Says Theodore Goldberg, associate professor of social work at Wayne State University: “The kids can just forget when they turn on the music.”

The box-toters themselves are not much given to self-analysis. They do not wonder about their practice but blandly accept it. Such is the force of fad and habit; they could not question their need for the music any more than they question their need for air. When coaxed to speak, they see the big carry-around sound as both a relief from loneliness and an aid to socializing. Clearly their constant music shuts them off from a world that has not lately said anything they would prefer to hear.

It is remarkable, in a way, that the world of the city manages so often to notice them, such is the jarring of racket that is the urban norm.

After all, an inevitable clamor has tested the sanity of urbanites since the city was first invented. Caesar futilely decried Rome’s noisiness, and the situation has got steadily worse ever since. The typical metropolis today suffers not only incessant horn bleats but the ingenious cacophony of screaming sirens, screeching tires, shattering jackhammers, clangorous garbage cans, raucous trucks and roaring buses, not to mention those interesting citizens who haunt all city streets shouting ominous sermons into the middle distance. Given such ear-rattling circumstances, one might suppose that the addition of even frenetic music to the urban up roar would be greeted with widespread inattention. Still, the city dweller, though besieged by chronic noise among other civ ic abominations, is not indifferent to his plight. Certain noises, those of traffic, for instance, are inherent in city life; essential and irreducible, they must be borne. The music of the boxes is not in that category. So the spread of the box-toters is raising a public rumpus over a valid social issue — the public’s right not to enjoy the private entertainment of an individual.

Irritation at force-fed music has already prompted a few police crackdowns to keep the radios silent on buses and trains, and has moved many municipalities to exercise existing antinoise laws to hold the volume down in other public spots.

The backlash against the box-toters has been wisely mild so far, but how their increasing numbers will fare in the face of in creasing irritation is anybody’s guess.

Finally, the more interesting question is how these constant listeners will fare through a prolonged addiction to the resonant emptiness of radio music. By shutting out the world so habitually, they seem almost to be seceding from it. Yet an invi tation to them to come back in might as well be laid aside.

Who would hear it?

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