I was astonished to realize how many sets of headphones and earbuds I own. Sonys (three pair), Bose (two pair), Sol Republic (1) and something I bought at Jack White’s Third Man Store. Then there’s the earbud inventory: Apple (too many to count), Shure, Klipsch, Bang and Olefson, Bose and a crapload of crappy earbuds from airline flights that somehow found their way home.
It’s stupid. No one needs this many things to stick in their ears. Yet I somehow feel I’m not alone. Check out this article from The New Yorker on the ubiquity of headphones in society.
Anyone who has recently spent time in a public space—traversing the aisle of an airplane, say, lurching toward your seat adjacent to the toilet, trying to shift your backpack without thwapping a fellow traveller on the forehead—has likely noticed the sudden and extraordinary ubiquity of headphones. “Do people really like music this much?” I have wondered, incredulously, while tallying endless white earplugs. The outside world, once a shared auditory environment, has been effectively fractured. We now lilt about in our own bubbles of self-programmed sound.
In 2012, the headphone industry saw a quick thirty-two-per-cent leap in revenue (concurrent with the increasing availability of smartphones and other devices that store and play back audio), and since then the market has only continued to swell. A 2014 survey by the “music lifestyle brand” Sol Republic found that fifty-three per cent of millennials—defined, for the survey’s purposes, as adults between eighteen and thirty-four years old—owned three or more pairs, and wore headphones for nearly four hours every day. Seventy-three per cent admitted to having slid a pair of headphones on to “avoid interaction with other people.” That same year, GQ, in a spread on its Web site, reconfigured headphones as the au-courant ornament for modish men: “The newest fashion accessory isn’t a fashion accessory at all. It’s head-swaddling, high-style headphones that make as much of a statement as anything else you’re wearing,” the copy read.
Certainly, headphones are an obvious method of exercising autonomy, control—choosing what you’ll hear and when, rather than gamely enduring whatever the environment might inflict upon you. In that way, they are defensive; users insist upon privacy (you can’t hear what I hear, and I can’t hear you) in otherwise lawless and unpredictable spaces. Should we think of headphones, then, as just another emblem of catastrophic social decline, a tool that edges us even deeper into narcissism, solipsism, vast unsociability? Another signifier of that most plainly American ideology: independence at any cost?
Update: If you’re looking for recommendations when it comes to earbuds, try 7 Best Earbuds (In-Ear Headphones) in 2017 for Under $100.