Music: Death knell of the boom box

Earlier this week NPR's All Things Considered bemoaned the loss of a hallowed American institution -- the boombox.
I was never a huge fan of these things, but it'd be foolish to dismiss the devices as an irrelevant relic from an era filled with balloon pants and bad haircuts.
Well, OK. In today's world of iPods and mobile video players I'll grant the boombox is a relic (and a really big one at that).
But it is not irrelevant.
In fact, the entire genre of hip hop, currently one of America's most popular music institutions, was built on the back of these portable, clunky bass machines.
Back in the 1980s, boomboxes were where a person went to hear the hottest young artists of the day. Music spread via bootleg tapes and those tapes found their home on city street corners demoed out of a friend's boombox. Always extra loud and always extra bassy, boomboxes were in many ways the e-mail and IM of their day -- a quick and easy way to spread new music to people (whether they wanted to hear it or not).
Blasting a new beat on an L.A. street corner was a way to grab the attention of otherwise preoccupied kids and get them hooked on new music. If they liked what they were hearing, the kids would ask the boombox owner for a bootleg copy. Lots of times these artists were local. If the boombox owner was really cool he might even know the rapper. Tickets to an upcoming show would be exchanged.
It's romantic really. Boomboxes were of a time when music spread by word of mouth. Only the acts the kids deemed popular made it big. (A stark change of pace from how the music industry works today.)
Today, listening to music is a much more solitary experience.
We slap on our headphones and stare at the ground while riding the train rather than pumping up a song on our box to fill the entire cabin.
I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it is different.
My generation grew up listening to music on these clunky devices. Sure, it was annoying as all hell when an obnoxious wad sauntered the subway bumping "Fuck the Police" at full volume, but there was a certain charm to it.
The boom box represented a purer time in music -- it made (and broke) careers and allowed the people to trade and choose the tapes they liked. There were no headphones. People listened to music together. People discussed what they liked and what they didn't. Music was more social. It was more fun.
Don't get me wrong, I'll still take my pocket iPod over a 10 pound metal radio any day of the week, but looking back, maybe all that bass wasn't so bad after all. Sure boomboxes are a relic in 2009, but in the hip hop world, they've never stopped being relevant.

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