July 19, 2020

Playing music in public spaces again, as "don't disturb me" refractory phase wears off

For the first time in years, I brought a portable music player to a public space to spread some good vibes. It lasted about an hour on Saturday evening, in a public park, which did not have the usual amount of people due to the weather (cloudy and very humid). I had it playing while walking a lap around the place, and then settling down on a hillside with a picnic blanket.

The music was whatever I found interesting on the FM radio stations, played over a walkman that I found for less than a dollar. It's an old Sanyo made-in-Japan model, well constructed out of metal, with a telescoping antenna. Looks cool, too -- painted red, black trim, with silver buttons and dials. The built-in speaker is powerful enough that you can set it down on the ground and hear it just fine on 3 or 4 out of 10.

No complaints or funny looks, and a few showing interest. One girl was pleasantly surprised to hear Taylor Swift playing in an open space -- like, how was that possible? What invention from the future did this guy get his hands on? Everyone's so used to earbuds, and only used to hearing music outside the home if it's coming from a car, or a retail store's speaker system. Especially the Millennials and Zoomers -- they don't remember the boombox days. Good ol' reliable Gen X to the rescue, keeping the good traditions alive.

At the end of the hour, as "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips came on, two teenage girls veered off the asphalt walkway to stride in front of me, both smiling and giggling for attention. Maybe it was just the relief of getting to be near a random hot guy in the wild during quarantine, but I think the vintage music played on a vintage device added to the charm of the situation.

The fact that this is another one of those "first time in years" happenings, suggests a link to the 15-year excitement cycle. I don't remember doing this at all from 2015-'19, during the vulnerable phase where everyone's in a refractory state and just wants to be left alone, lest even the slightest stimulation overload their nervous system. I do remember one guy in 2014 carrying a boombox around a thrift store, playing "The Promise" by When In Rome among other less memorable songs.

During the manic phase of the early 2010s, I used to carry around a makeshift boombox -- a discman, attached to a portable speaker, and an assortment of CDs, all held in the large external pockets of a canvas briefcase, which I was already holding anyway to lug around books. I recall once seeing another guy walking around the streets with a proper boombox during that same period.

As long as you choose the right catchy songs, it will lift people's mood -- I remember the Cars compilation always playing well with park-going audiences. Just avoid stuff that won't be crowd favorites -- rap, country, metal, etc.

Fortunately for my recollection, I blogged at the time about the most vivid and hilarious experience I had with playing music in public. It was at a Starbucks, me vs. what we now call a Karen or an AWFL, before there was a label for them. And yes, she did ask to speak to the manager to intervene against me. (Since it was the manic phase, who do you think won?) Seriously, you have to read it, I'm LOLing seven years later.

That was the same summer, 2013, that I got to troll and shame a group of device-junkies who were ruining the otherwise screen-free atmosphere of Vegas in summertime. That really was the high point of public IRL trolling for me. I didn't even blog about all of them -- someday when I can get in the right mood, I'll tell another story from that summer, also involving a Boomer Karen.

Thinking back further, I don't remember playing music in public during the last restless phase of the late 2000s, and I don't recall seeing anyone else doing so either. Who knows how widespread portable speakers were? -- maybe we would've felt like it, but just didn't have the technology. So it's unclear whether this trend will return during the current restless phase, but it will definitely come back by the next manic phase in the late 2020s.

In the meantime, I'll do my part to get it started again, and you should too. No more boring low-energy public spaces. And remember, as of this year nobody is bringing their phones to serve as social insulators in public, totally unlike any period since the adoption of cell phones and smartphones. You won't be competing for their attention. Only the spergiest freaks are still in full "stare down at screen" mode in public.

Just remember -- you're not playing music to "tell the world something about your persona," since nobody cares. You're playing music to please the crowd. It could be something they haven't heard before, as long as it isn't off-putting or a narrow in-group signal. I was regularly playing Style Council over the car speakers a month or so ago, and always got smiles from pedestrians for "Long Hot Summer", which most of them probably hadn't heard before (even if music buffs have).

Great music has timeless appeal. The only obstacle is the audience's mood, and we're out of the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, so don't worry about them being in the same hysterical emo "leave me alone" mood of the past five years. They're not going to #MeToo you for making unwanted musical advances in a public space.


  1. It's so cool hearing new music on an old device, one that's linked to such a narrow period of time.

    Maybe it's just because I grew up with walkmans, so I associate them only with music from the '90s and earlier. Perhaps a Millennial or Zoomer, who didn't experience them when they were popular, would not have such a strong expectation of hearing '90s music or earlier coming from the speakers. For them it may be only a different format or form factor, without any link to the "content" it would be playing.

    Most of the contempo stations were playing bland emo music from the past 5 years, but I did get to enjoy a few recent hits -- over a walkman. "Style" by Taylor Swift, "Delicate" by Taylor Swift, and a dance remix of "Break My Heart" by Dua Lipa, which just came out this year (my fave of the nascent neo-neo-neo-disco era).

    In a way, it surprised me more than the young girl to hear "Delicate" being played on a walkman. Like, am I hallucinating hearing post-'90s music coming out of a walkman?

    Old content on new devices is not surprising -- we expect new things to play the old stuff. But new content on an old device makes it seem like it had uncanny foresight. Like if you could play Fortnite on an Apple II.

    But really it's just that radio has transcended the format wars in consumer-owned music. Many decades since the first portable radio player was adopted, analog FM radio transmissions are still being broadcast by big physical towers.

    Turns out you don't need an internet connection to "stream" music, old or contempo. Just dial in a station on the radio.

    I recommend this even more for those of you who do debase your humanity by carrying internet-capable devices wherever you go outside the home. You need to cut down on your internet time, and FM radio is perfect. Change the station if you don't want to hear ads.

    There are mp3 players with a built-in FM tuner, and no internet access -- listen to your own music, or the radio, and not have to sell your soul to the online demons to meet basic human needs like playing music.

  2. Picked up One of the Boys on CD, and it says www.myspace.com/KatyPerry on the back and the liner. I usually hate URLs displayed on anything, but that domain name brings back the late 2000s vibes almost as much as the music itself.

  3. Got Miley Cyrus' Breakaway on CD, sadly no MySpace URL, but she does thank "God" up front in the liner notes -- just like Katy Perry in the liner notes for One of the Boys, btw. Also adds to the late 2000s vibes.

    Ah, back when the culture war was only between being a nondescript Christian or a new atheist...

    Nothing like driving around with the windows down, the A/C shut off in 90+ degree heat, blasting "Waking Up in Vegas" and "7 Things".

    The hard rock revival of the time really touched on every genre. There's even a bonus "rock mix" of "I Kissed a Girl" on the Katy Perry CD, with less gay-friendly hard-rock instrumentation. We just couldn't get enough hard-edged, edgy, rocker, rockstar vibes in the late 2000s.

    I should find some place where girls in their late 20s hang out, and roll up playing the Miley Cyrus CD. It's tailor-made for re-activating their teenage turbulence of yearning and horniness. And not (necessarily) to pick them up -- just to get everyone's juices flowing again, now that the vulnerable emo phase is over.

    If you're an early '90s girl yourself, add that to your playlist while cruising around. There's no time like the pandemic present to revive the turbo-feels of the summer of 2008.

  4. That didn't take long! Amazing reactions from girls the first time I played the Miley CD.

    One was in her late 20s, walking her dog and talking on her phone. When she heard "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," in Miley Cyrus' voice, she spun around with a surprised smile, and I smiled back at her. No masks on either of us -- the great thing about public spaces under a pandemic, as opposed to flirting indoors.

    Basically any group of girls got pepped up when they heard that one.

    By far the most hormonal response, though, was when "7 Things" was on, and there was a pair of teenage girls up ahead going the same direction I was, riding bikes at a leisurely pace on a cozy residential street (effectively one lane, with cars parked on both sides).

    One was already on the right side, and I figured the one on the left side would move over to get the car behind her out of the way. But nope! She wanted to hear that song as long as possible, so she stayed in the middle of the road. Once the chorus started, she stood her tan lithe legs up off of the seat and started doing a pogo dance on the pedals to the beat, bouncing her cute little butt at the driver to thank him for playing a sensitive yet hard-edged soundtrack to her summertime evening bike ride.

    How did she know it wasn't a girl playing Miley Cyrus? Her friend turned around to see who I was, and she must've said "No, it's a guy -- and he's hot."

    Seriously guys, this album is chick catnip. Nothing better to ease them back into the frisky mood that they want so desperately to return to.


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