History, Department of


Date of this Version

April 2008


Paper presented at the 3rd Annual James A. Rawley Conference in the Humanities — Imagining Communities: People, Places, Meanings. Lincoln, Nebraska, April 12, 2008. Sponsored by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln History Graduate Students’ Association. Copyright © 2008 Chris Rasmussen. Used by permission.


In the winter of 1979 Sony introduced a hand-held cassette player called the Walkman—a device that catered to a mass culture that had come to demand personal control over the musical experience. The Walkman’s mobility allowed for unprecedented individual control over the environment: a barrier that kept unwanted sounds or unwanted others out. In the post World War II era, loneliness and recorded popular music became linked. For both the performer and audience, the musical experience had become more solitary and mediated over time. This separation occurred in the context of a historically individualistic culture that was placing ever-greater emphasis on the self. By the 1970s the celebration of the autonomy and sufficiency of the individual had been taken to new extremes with consequences for all aspects of American life. The story of popular recorded music’s journey out of the public and into the personal, therefore, represents only one part of a larger national story that includes privatized leisure generally, the expansion of the suburbs, the emergence of niche marketing, individualized spirituality from “born again” Christianity to New Age mysticism, and the emphasis on control over the body. It is a story that also includes the collapse of political consensus, increasing cynicism, and the rise of the new right. The lonely listening style of the late twentieth century therefore should concern anyone interested in the American experience.

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