Being Modern: Headphones


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The Independent Culture

Popular songs about contemporary fads can be hit-and-miss affairs. For every "Surfin' USA" that captures the zeitgeist and endures in its own right, there is a "Convoy", those novelty records that sound laughable as soon as the trend (in this case, CB radio) passes its sell-by date.

Occasionally, though, such songs can transcend pop to become prophesy, and one such example is Cliff Richard's 1981 hit "Wired for Sound". When you've finished tittering, consider the evidence: the Sony Walkman portable cassette player had been introduced to the European market barely a year earlier. Hastily written by Cliff's then-producer Alan Tarney and the Scottish songwriter-for-hire BA Robertson as a celebration of that object, "Wired for Sound" foresaw the future in couplets such as "Walking about with a head full of music.../ Stereo – out on the streets, you know."

And now look at us... We travel on public transport wired for sound. We sit at our desks wired for sound. We are, just as Cliff predicted, out on the streets, you know, wired for sound.

Fittingly, such ubiquity has given new lease of life to the items at the end of those wires. Before the Walkman, the headphones we'd use to listen to music at home were enormous things with pads that went around the outside of the ear (the technical term is "circumaural"). The early 1980s and the need for lightweight, portable 'phones saw a switch to the supra-aural, those with foam pads that sit on top of the ear, and since then the iPod heralded the rise of the "earbud" – which would just hang there in your ear only to fall out every time you turned your head.

But then a weird thing happened. As the earbud morphed into the "in-ear" headphone (so tiny you could shove it up into your ear canal), a loyal band of hipsters began buying pairs as large as those we'd left behind in the 1970s. They come in funky colours. They have names such as SkullCandy, WeSC and – the daddy of them all – Beats by Dr Dre. They are, apparently, the next generation of headphone. Just one question: if they sound so good, why are you wearing them round your neck?