Tuning in: why 'headphone culture' signals a change in living in public

In a world that can feel both connected and impersonal, transportable music is a way to connect to something that feels real to one’s life.

April 25, 2013

Privacy is a luxury. Outside of one’s home and especially in an urban environment, finding privacy has become increasingly more difficult. Whereas before we were content to find and create privacy in our own homes, the greater invasion of personal space online has bred and will continue to breed a culture of self-imposed seclusion, if only through the form of a song.

My office is a vast and inviting space full of young and hardworking individuals. It is also full of headphones large and small. Everyone is listening to something to not listen to the sounds around them. It is not that the office is particularly loud. Rather, it is the silence that facilitates a need to escape from the public work environment.

I worked in a museum for a year and wearing headphones to listen to music never crossed my mind. I worked in a small office with three other women. Listening to music when they were just beyond the cubicle wall would have seemed strange, perhaps even rude. But in an open environment where the privacy of a cubicle prohibits a collaborative work environment, using music to escape and focus on one’s individual tasks becomes normal and accepted.

The small office environment creates a greater and easier form of intimacy. It does not feel invasive or public. In contrast, the larger office environment feels more like the outside world: surrounded by people, but not knowing any of them personally. Wearing headphones then becomes a method of creating personal and private intimacy with the things we already love and cherish: our music. In a story for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson wrote, “Headphones did for music what writing and literacy did for language. They made it private.” We can not be home, but we can create that sense of a “space of one’s own” through music, an art form that is both social and deeply personal.

Music is now mobile intimacy. Most people’s music taste caters specifically to their wants, loves, and curiosity, and backgrounds. As much as I resist, I continue to define myself through the music I listen to. Perhaps you do as well. I can trace my interest in electronic and dance music to the r&b, funk, and disco my parents listened to when I was a child. This was the only music I knew and in time, it became the music that built everything I love today. Music is personal and deeply felt. It is a form of intimacy in that it connects us to other people and to ourselves. In that same story, Thompson wrote, “Headphones give us absolute control over our audio-environment, allowing us to privatize our public spaces [...] But it also represents nothing less than a fundamental shift in humans' basic relationship to music.”

With the birth of the iPod and the use of other mobile devices such as cell phones, people can now literally take that intangible form of intimacy with them. In a world that can feel both connected and impersonal, transportable music is a way to connect to something that feels real to one’s life. Listening to dance music at the office makes me feel – if only for a moment – like I am still at the club with my friends. The dance floor is one of the most invigorating and life-affirming spaces in the world to me. To transport that sense of space, that feeling of transcendence, to a space that is entirely different is a gift born only out of the advancements in technology.

And as this new listening culture has grown, larger and more precise headphones are increasingly more valuable as they perfect our method of immersion. By seeking out the most precise and best quality headphones, we are actively engaging in the escape and immersion that had thus far not been explicitly communicated. There have always been music listeners who craved perfect headphones that blocked out the world around them. However, it is the growth in the number of regular listeners using large, noise-canceling headphones that marks an important shift. My first pair of earbuds for my iPod died quickly. For a year or so, I purchased equivalent pairs. However, besides their poor quality, they also never fulfilled my true need: to block out the world around me.

The growth of headphone culture has created a sense of paranoia in the media. Numerous articles wonder whether or not our need to listen is making us anti-social. Perhaps this is true. But as a listener that has grown with newer and more intimate forms of technology, I find these changes representative of our secret desires. This technology is not changing who we are, only highlighting what we have always wanted, felt, and understood about the world around us. The desire to escape continues to grow as the way we interact with each other in the world changes, but this was not born out of nothing. We are now living more public lives. We are now seeing and interacting with greater numbers of people, strangers and friends alike. Headphones in general and better quality headphones in particular provide us with the opportunity to escape this constant public world, if only for a moment. 

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.