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October 18, 2010  | by: Kerri O'Malley

Lyle Owerko's Boombox Project Photos as iPod Skins

Years ago, the boombox was the portable music option. These bulky machines lit up city streets most notably during the early days of hip-hop, when young people would rap to tracks and dance in public; gathering, celebrating, and sharing their new culture.

Today, the era of the boombox is over, replaced by iPod culture.  Music is turning from something you can touch to something invisible — bought in the iTunes virtual store with intangible money, and shared on the virtual streets of the Internet.  The ever-present iPod headphones have replaced the street corner musical stylings of the analog era, moving music from public to private.  In an age where information and music sharing is on the rise, the act of sharing has become oddly unphysical, and the environment in which we share is almost always the Internet.

As tunes turn from sound object to plain sound, boomboxes and all they represent take a serious hit.  The once-powerful kings of the very real streets are now shoddy old antiques, abandoned.  Lyle Owerko, a photographer featured in last weekend’s New York Times, recently published a book of photos called The Boombox Project.  These photographs of old boomboxes examine the machines as ancient objects.  Owerko’s photographs are being sold not only in his book, but as skins for iPods.  A cute and quirky idea, but just because an iPod can look the part doesn’t mean it can act it.

Lloyd's Status: "It's Complicated"

For example, how could Say Anything‘s Llyod Dobler express his musical emotion these days?  Hoist an iHome over his head?  Good luck, buddy.  Let’s face it, those things don’t have very powerful sound.  Maybe he could just post a YouTube video of “In Your Eyes” on Diane Court’s Facebook wall.  But it wouldn’t be the same.  It wouldn’t wake her up in the middle of the night with sung professions of love.  It would be easier for Lloyd, and thus, less romantic for Diane.

And how would Do The Right Thing‘s Radio Raheem have fought back?  When music can be noise, noise that shouts back, that highlights anger, fear, and conflict, it can become more powerful, more dangerous, and have a greater potential to incite change.  Music shared in public can also create more definite communities, bring people together.  How many people can actually crowd around an iPod?

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to imply that iPods and Internet sharing have universally ruined the music world or done harm to music sharing.  While these conditions do raise marketing and sales issues for music companies, the everyman has more often than not profited from this new type of sharing.  Now it is possible to own thousands and thousands of songs without bulky crates of records or shaky stacks of cassettes.  And our music has a greater longevity now that we don’t have to concern ourselves with scratched CDs, twisted tapes, and dusty vinyl.

Radio Raheem's Musical Power

But while the shift may not be entirely negative, it has significantly changed music culture, just as the age of the Internet has changed almost everything.  With instant music access, trends have become more fleeting, and catchy, single songs have become more important than intricate albums.  And how we share in public, how we think of “public,” has forever been transformed.  As music becomes easier to listen to and share, more separated from our physical, public lives, part of its potential power is diminished.  Music as a private, consumerist pursuit ignores the possibility of music as a community-builder (as in the early days of hip-hop), or music as a weapon against ignorance (Do The Right Thing).  A boombox could say anything, and say it loud, making it impossible for passerby to ignore.  Today, in iPod form, music instead helps us to ignore our surroundings.

Yet, even in the age of iPods, an effort can be made to maintain our music communities.  As more and more internet communities sprout up, we can do our best to take these rallying points into the streets, into our physical realities.  Boomboxes were fantastic, but a trip back to that time seems almost impossible now.  It is instead time to move forward.  As The Lonely Island and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas remind us in their playful tribute to 80s boombox culture and boiled goose: “A boombox can change the world, but you gotta know your limits with a boombox.”  Here’s hoping we’ll find a way to re-invigorate our musical world and reconnect, not on Facebook, but face-to-face.  A rainbow coalition of dance and fingerless gloves for all!

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