The boom box is actually an important phenomenon, so much so that there are serious academic papers that mention their social importance. They were important to spreading rap, breakdancing, and urban culture, offering hi-fi stereos in compact packages and easy duplication of cassettes to spread the music. They were status symbols, they were keys to distribution, they helped create mixtape culture…we owe a lot to our poorly-soldered, stereo shoulder-friends. Boom boxes helped give us Tupac, The Roots, Mos Def…Will Smith…50 Cent…let’s just stick with Tupac, Mos Def, and the Roots, OK?
The only thing about boom boxes that sucked was the fact that they were essentially designed to allow every jerk-ass everywhere to subject you to his taste in music. It’s one thing when a talented dance troupe has portable music to rock out to. It’s something else again when you have to listen to somebody else’s taste in music at 8am on the bus, especially when it’s a white guy convinced he’s the illest mofo straight outta Framingham, something that can even annoy the crap out of everyone’s favorite Vulcan:
But, thankfully, as the ’80s progressed, it became the trendy douchebag thing to shut out the world completely. Instead of blaring your music aggressively at everybody over two cheap speakers, you blared your music aggressively into your own ears with the Walkman, then the Discman, and then the iPod, and now…finally…the cell phone. It was still loud, and probably loud enough for everybody to hear it anyway, but at least there was the pretense that you actually cared about other people’s privacy. Which brings us to the crux of the problem.
Because just like a razor-bladed boomerang, being an irritating douche with your music is back…and even worse.
You see, in the ’80s it was different, for two reasons:
1) Either angry young black men were asserting themselves and their culture in the face of white tyranny, or rich white men were acting like angry young black men because whitey ruins everything.
2) At least in theory, the music being produced was turned out in high fidelity, even if it is over a stereo crammed into a tiny space. So people were exposed to music they had never heard of in a high-quality way. Or, at least, in better quality than they could possibly get elsewhere. It was kind of like radio if the radio couldn’t be turned off.
Now, it’s pretty much:
1) You forgot your headphones and can’t afford the web-browsing fees on your phone, so listening to music is the only way to distract yourself on public transportation.
2) You’d rather listen to your crappy music over a tinny speaker because you’re a huge jackass with no understanding or respect for other people.
What happened in the intervening twenty years? Pretty simple: rap, more specifically hip-hop, won. Listening to rap is now as about as rebellious and unique as flossing. I grew up in Vermont, the whitest state in the Union, and my high school had plenty of white kids milking cows to Biggie. In the war of musical and pop culture relevance, rap won it somewhere around 1995 and pop culture hasn’t looked back since, mostly because looking back means a comeback tour from Aerosmith, and nobody wants that. Rap is no longer “urban” in any meaningful sense; it’s what rappers think will sell to suburban white kids who think life “on the street” is just like they hear in the songs, because whenever they’re out in Dad’s SUV and a black guy approaches, they speed away.
The rappers have displaced the rock stars, mostly because people still buy their albums instead of torrenting them and pretending they’ll, like, totally go to the next show when the band hits town. And just like rock stars, it’s not about the actual reality of what life is really like in America’s urban centers, it’s all about the image you create. Even if that image is, you know, a total lie. In other words, back when rap was young, it might actually be performed by people who had actually committed crimes to survive. “F**k Tha Police” was honest. Now it’s performed by guys who pretend to be criminals because that’s the pose that sells to dumb white kids.
For example, Curtis “I Have a Lithp 50 Cent” Jackson likes to talk about how he got shot nine times, but he’s probably not eager for you to know about his actual crack dealing career, which is actually a really pathetic story of some wannabe tough guy making a 16-year-old girl do all the actual work. And probably the entire rap world doesn’t want you to know that even the successful guys are having trouble affording the bling, and most rappers get screwed just like any other musician on a major label. Oh, and, also, if said rapper is talking about all the money they made selling drugs, not only is it unlikely they even did that in the first place, selling crack pays less than minimum wage and the structure turns you into a wage slave. Most crack dealers make $3.50 an hour and work at McDonald’s to actually feed themselves. Even the top guy can’t even make a million dollars. Not that life in urban areas is a picnic, by any means, but it’s substantially different from the rap version, to put it mildly.
So blaring “urban” music is no longer a rebellious assertion, because the rappers all sold out and try to pass off dressing like white people as “street” to those same white people.
The second is the sound quality. Bad enough you’re trying to be cool with a teeny little gadget playing music so mainstream you might as well be listening to Journey, does it really have to be over a crappy speaker too? OK, so MP3 isn’t the highest quality format, although nobody beyond the kind of person who insists vinyl sounds better than, like, anything actually cares, and only a tiny subset of those even have hearing good enough to notice.
But if you are going to subject us to your mediocre taste, the least you could do is arrange for us to appreciate it fully, with a high end that doesn’t sound like tin and a low-end that has more kick than a third-grader in a wheelchair.
In other words, playing your music out loud now isn’t an act of rebellion; basically, you might as well being trying to rock out to Muzak. It is, pure and simple, your being a jerk. Buy some damn earbuds, and stop pretending you’re a bad-ass.