The Boombox Project

Lyle Owerko, famous for his photographs of 9/11, has published a book called “The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground”:

In shot after full-page shot, Mr. Owerko […] venerates an audio technology that, to eyes accustomed to the iPod’s futuristic smoothness, seems practically steampunk: hard, square-edged metal casing; wheel-size speakers protected by silvery-black grilles; lots of clunky knobs and buttons. And at the center of every boombox is a cassette deck.

Blogs like SlamXHype feel the need to elaborate:

The photos are of old boombox radios that have achieved icon status and were one the most favored means of listening to music in the 80s. The popular radios boasted some large speakers and controls to project a mammoth sound that was capable of being taken anywhere due to the portable nature of the device.

People need to have boomboxes explained to them?! Now I’m really feeling old.

The first sound system I ever bought for myself was a boombox, a sturdy, no-nonsense black JVC (it was a later model, with one of those newfangled “CD players”) — though I never carried it around, and just used it to listen to music at home. I do remember it fondly, although I have mixed feelings about the boombox phenomenon as a whole; people always lugged them into places where I wanted some peace and quiet, and they never seemed to play the music I liked. (And if I hadn’t convinced you before that I’m of an old-fogeyish persuasion, I’m sure I’ve done it now.)

Yes, I’m aware of the racial and cultural divides that boombox culture opened up (see the video below for an exploration of that), and I recognize its importance in the beginnings of hip-hop and in giving various underclasses a compelling, empowering voice: a way of proclaiming oneself, a way out of invisibility. But no story is ever the whole story (as I’ve said elsewhere), and I also think the boombox contributed to the erosion of civility in the public square, as people grew louder and less considerate of those around them. It made us listen to each other, yes, but we had no choice in the matter; and silence became an increasingly rare commodity. Perhaps we’re regaining some silence now, as we listen to our music in more private ways; but then again, there’s always a trade-off, and perhaps now we’re more isolated from each other, sacrificing our awareness of those around us for the solitude between our earbuds, and the solipsism of listening only to what we want to hear.

In any case, I do love the way the boomboxes looked. The iMacs and iPods are fine — sleekness and miniaturization are the wave of the future, I suppose — but I miss all the clunky old hardware. Steampunk indeed.

Photos from “The Boombox Project” can be viewed on Owerko’s website, and are also on exhibit at Clic Gallery through December 5.

(Photo via HuntleyBlog; video via Core77. An older NPR story on boomboxes here.)

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