In the summer of 1997, the only reason I survived a family road trip through western Canada was my trusty Walkman.
It wasn’t my dad’s Walkman, which was adult, boring, and gray. While I can’t quite find it on Google, mine was teal with hot pink accents—sort of like this Sanyo MGR78 though not quite. Whatever it was, I can’t say for sure why my parents finally relented and got it for me in July 1997. I suspect my parents were tired of me blasting Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame cassette on my radio. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really care. I covered it in cutesy stickers and from then on, we were inseparable.
Summer 1997 was musically formative. It was the year I convinced my mom to buy me the first Spice Girls single—Wannabe—on cassette at the neighborhood Genovese drug store. This was not a cassette I could blast at full volume at home. For one, my dad did not approve of women in shorter-than-decent skirts, commanding us all to tell them what we wanted, what we really, really wanted. Secondly, my parents’ idea of the music I should be listening to was WQXR, New York’s classical music radio station, and only WQXR. The worst part was they didn’t even have the decency to stick to the composers everybody knew like Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. In our house, it was Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana or bust. The problem was nine-year-old me loved the Spice Girls and all things pop.
Without a Walkman, I knew I’d be doomed. Family vacations were bad enough, but a family vacation where me, my mom, and my grandparents were all stuck in a car for several hours at a time? I didn’t speak Korean so talking with my grandparents was tough. Reading was a no-go. Any car ride longer than 10 minutes made me horribly nauseous and reading only worsened that. Video games were also a nonstarter—GameBoys would “rot my brain” and were thus banned. The only form of “entertainment” was the radio and to this day, my mom is incapable of driving safely unless Bach is blaring at full volume.
For me—and millions of other people—my Walkman was my first taste of portable privacy. It came with those crappy headphones. You know, the kind with the spongey foam earpads that didn’t really cushion your ears and tore easily if you weren’t careful. Slipping them on felt like a superpower. I could still see everything that was whizzing past outside my window, but I didn’t have to listen to my mom arguing with my grandparents about which exit to take. It didn’t matter that I only had a few cassettes to choose from. The point was that in my little corner of the car, I could carve out a refuge from the monotony of family squabbles and winding mountain roads.
It didn’t stop after that road trip. That cassette player was the first thing I packed into my bag every morning before leaving for day camp. When I was tired of being bullied on the cheese bus, I could pull out my Walkman and tune everyone out. My secret cassette collection grew. That fall, the Spice Girls released their first album and I listened to that cassette until the tape broke. My parents had no say about my covert, basement dance sessions where I jammed out to the Spice Girls’ criminally underrated song Last Time Lover, whose not-so-subtle lyrics flew way over my head. Silent discos had nothing on me.
While most people would probably credit the Walkman’s success to its portability, I’d argue that ability to create a pocket of public yet private space is really what did it.
It might seem funny to miss the Walkman. After all, you could argue that Walkmans never really disappeared but merely evolved. Sony may have been first, releasing the first Walkman in 1979, but they were far from the last. Plenty of other electronics brands like Panasonic, Aiwa, and Toshiba hopped on board. And then when cassettes died, CD players took their place. And when CD players died, the iPod and other mp3 players replaced them. Now we all have smartphones that do the same thing and so much more in a much sleeker form factor.
Walkmans were clunkier, sure. The magnetic tape in cassettes was notoriously fragile and yeah, I had a mild panic attack whenever it’d get caught in the player itself. Removing a jammed tape felt as close to performing surgery as I’d ever get. Whenever the tape would unspool out the bottom, I found it weirdly soothing using a BIC pen to carefully rewind the tape back into place. Sure, it was sometimes annoying but I preferred it to skipping CD tracks, and carrying around cassettes was infinitely easier than a bulky sleeve of CDs. It wasn’t as tedious to maintain a library of cassettes as it was sorting and labeling my pirated KaZaa mp3s, lugging them from one portable hard drive to the next. I didn’t have to worry about audio formats or how much storage a Walkman had. I definitely didn’t freak out as much when I dropped my Walkman compared to my iPod. (My Walkman was pretty hardy considering how many times I dropped it.) I didn’t need a horrendous iTunes account, and sharing music was as easy as lending a friend my cassette or buying a headphone splitter.
No, a Walkman isn’t necessarily better than my iPhone or the vast libraries that streaming services afford. But sometimes I miss having dedicated gadgets. I got a lot of hangups about my phone—I’d love to chuck it across the room whenever the notifications get to be too much. I resent feeling like I have to have it on me at all times. In 25 years, I will not be penning an ode to my phone, the source of nearly all my anxiety. These days, I consider my phone more of a toxic codependent relationship I’m stuck in than anything akin to a friend. When I eventually upgrade, I won’t ever think about my iPhone XS Max again. But my Walkman?
When my Walkman finally died, I’ll cop to crying. That thing was with me through thick and thin. It was there when I first starting developing a taste for music beyond Disney movies and my parents’ obsession with old dead European composers. I miss it most whenever I’m on a long road trip, fumbling with Car Play, trying to find a decent playlist.