Part of the joy of working with teenagers is the smug sense of superiority you feel when they all pull out their latest generation iPods and start listening to Hedley or Lady GaGa. Before you can stop yourself, you’ve already blurted out the phrase, “Back in my day…” You follow this up with steadfast assertions that the pathetic excuse you had for a music-playing device somehow imbued you with deeper character, broader worldviews, and a heightened sense of smell.
My first portable music player was a hand-me-down tape deck from my stepmother. It was already ancient when I got it, only a small step up from an 8-track, and it featured no more than two hours of functionality on a pair of AAA batteries, and that was only if I avoided using the fast-forward, rewind, or pause buttons. In addition, it did not have a built-in radio. I will remind you that even at this point (1992ish) portable radios were being made that were the size of a quarter. The technology was there. It was cheap and readily available. Do you know what this monstrosity’s solution to an FM tuner was?
A tape-shaped insert with a radio built into it.
Pardon me when I say that this was a complete and utter embarrassment to own. As a teenager, pulling this red and chrome beast out of your backpack and popping in the cassette-radio was a sure-fire way to get mocked and/or beaten-up. (I was already scrawny, ugly, awkward, and unpopular; why give the other kids further ammunition?)
The sound quality somehow managed to be both tinny and muddy simultaneously. It warbled the sound if I tried to move while it was on, giving me the eerie sense that the musicians were flying past me on a short, circular train track. The foam on the headphones had disintegrated, so I was left with two perforated metal pieces cheese-grating my ears. It also made a kind of whirring noise while it played, and this would often turn into rhythmic squeaking, grinding, or clicking, where each new sound was louder than the next (and louder than the actual music) until it finally ate my tape and spat it out in a filmy pile of magnetic ribbon (unless, of course, I was listening to the cassette-radio insert).
I suffered with the red piece of crap for roughly a year before I got an actual Walkman for Christmas. It too was red, but it was mercifully sleek and functional. The scabs on my ears slowly healed, the bullies at school choose less obvious things about me to mock, and I could actually hear all of my music in all of its stereo wonder. As I listen to my 5th generation iPod Nano today, do I look back fondly on the days of the red monster? Do I wish for simpler time, a time of “Side A” and “Side B,” of winding tapes with pencils that fit just right in the gear holes, of “auto-dubbing,” recording songs from the radio, and making mix tapes for my girlfriend?
Hells no, my friends.