The other day I went into HMV Oxford to buy a CD. Imagine that. How positively archaic of me, like riding a penny farthing or voting for the Liberal party. See, nowadays it seems that HMV and other such stores would much rather sell you the means to listen to your music than the music itself. Whilst the latest Tom Waits album is hidden away in some small dark corner, downstairs front and centre are various lurid headphones that just scream, ‘I would make for unpleasant conversation.’
This obsession with headphones is perhaps one of my least favourite aspects of this brave new world of pop music, slotting in seamlessly between LMFAO and Sugababes v3.0. It is representative of a sea change in music that means that what we listen to is effectively irrelevant but it is how we listen to it that matters. You might say ‘I’m not trying to make a statement; I’m just listening to music’. But when you’re wearing those oversized ‘cans’ it seems impossible to believe that you are entirely unaware that people might notice you as you walk down the street.
Perhaps these people are trying to tell me that actually what they really value is audio quality. Certainly this is a growing trend what with this modern obsession with dubstep and all things bass. But I sincerely hope that this isn’t the reason why people are going out and spending obscene amounts on audio equipment. For one thing, no matter how you square it, having a profound love of high-end technology remains pathologically sad. But also I worry about how audiophiles experience music. Presumably if all that matters is audio quality then liking music is not about the emotions that your favourite song brings you but about the physical thrill it provides your eardrums. I’m not denying that audiophiles have a point (having heard ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’ on Beats headphones I can say the experience is positively spectacular) but give me Ocean Rain on some tinny speakers over Magnetic Man any day.
It used to be pretty easy to show people that you were a music fan when you were walking down the street. The advent of the Sony Walkman in the 1980s meant that you could spot a music fan a mile off. It was not a cheap activity to like music and indeed even as late as the early iPod era being willing to spend the money to buy an expensive piece of music technology marked you out as someone who was passionate about music, passionate enough to spend huge chunks of money to indulge their habit. But now, as David Bowie predicted, music has become ‘like running water’ with Spotify, illegal downloading and mobile phones with enough space for people’s entire music collection having served to devalue music again and again. Buying a pair of high-quality headphones could be your own private way of letting the world know that you really like your music, not just ‘I like a bit of everything, me.’
Or of course it could be, and here is the most convincing argument I find, that you have a lot of money and want people to know about it. What do people think when they see someone wearing a pair of £200+ headphones? Do they think ‘There goes a passionate music fan’? Or do they think ‘Look, that guy must be successful and better than me in every way imaginable’? Just as that iPad you have under your arm marks you out as a conspicuous consumer so do your ridiculously oversized and ostentatious headphones. And we hate you for it.