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Are We Really Better Off Without Discmans?

The iPod was a harbinger of the doom to come

Today I’ve been assigned to write about the “Disc-Man.” Oh the memories I have, listening to the top hits and newly-released Compact Discs delivered with crystal-clear sound on my beloved Disc-Man. 

Just messing with ya. I don’t actually remember much about Discmans at all because I’m not a fucking million years old. Like, I had some shitty neon green portable CD player through which I’d listen to Green Day’s American Idiot early in elementary school, but that’s about the extent of it. The first iPod was released when I was 5. I obviously didn’t acquire an iPod at that age, but by the time I was old enough to actually have more than one album in my repertoire, iPods were pretty commonplace. 

The Discman was ultimately the last innovation in music-listening before it all went digital. More than harkening in the streaming era, the introduction of the iPod entirely shifted the physical practice of listening to music — while the Discman required you to commit to a single CD at a time, the iPod introduced our contemporary practice of listening to whatever songs in whatever order we’d like, regardless of album.

Save for this ability to actually own and appreciate an album as a cohesive piece of art, portable CD players kind of sucked. Sure, they allowed for some convenience and the ability to skip songs more quickly than with cassettes or vinyl, but they were stupidly delicate. One of the few memories I have of my CD player is the fact that I had to buy American Idiot twice — the first one I purchased never even played at all. 

Looking back on old models (and the uncanny-valley new ones sold on Amazon today), Discman and its peers really only touted two main benefits: skip protection, and some vague options for adjusting aspects of the sound. This latter feature is, weirdly enough, something we’ve almost entirely gotten rid of. Cars and stereos still offer adjustment options for bass and treble, but the iPhone, for all its advancements, leaves these sound aspects static. 

While I couldn’t lament the loss of the Discman if I tried, I do question what it is we’ve lost in the shift to digital, nearly 20 years later. While the features of a portable CD player seem almost useless today, their very existence pointed to the variety of options in the music-listening market. There was a competition between objects, all vying for your selection. Today you might have to choose between Spotify or Apple Music, but you’re probably listening to it on your iPhone, either way. Maybe you had to spend more money on the music itself, but listening to unlimited music for $10 a month on an $800 device really only works out as a deal to the most obsessive, eclectic listener. 

When I really think about it, I wish technology would have simply ceased to advance beyond the CD player. Sure, it was probably clunky to carry around, but you know what else is clunky to carry around? My crippling attachment to my iPhone.