Supernatural sound: Stranger Things and the Sony Walkman

Max possessed

At heart, Stranger Things is a show about growing up: season 1 opens with a group of four kids on hour ten of a robust Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Adjacent plots involve navigating the complex webs of friendship, jealousy, bullying, crushes, and love triangles all while getting sucked into the equally messy world of government cover-ups, conspiracies, and a hidden underworld known as the Upside Down. While we get a host of complicated and interesting adult characters as well, the core of the story revolves around our original four heroes: dungeon master Mike Wheeler, late-bloomer Will Byers, headstrong Lucas Sinclair, and eccentric loud-mouth Dustin Henderson. In season 2, we’re also introduced to new-in-town, skateboarder extraordinaire Max Mayfield.

As the cast has aged in real life, so do writers and creators the Duffer Brothers age their characters, taking them from the precocious kids who biked the suburban idyll of small-town Hawkins, Indiana, to monster-fighting detectives and superheroes breaking into psychiatric hospitals and stealing mobile homes, nothing which exempts them from the horrors of dealing with adolescence, too. In fact, as the series progresses and the stakes get higher, the characters are left dealing with the fallout of several tragedies, including the death of Billy Hargrove, Max’s step-brother, in season 3. Billy’s death leaves Max understandably awash in myriad emotions: grief at his lose, anger at the legacy of his abusive behavior, guilt over the manner in which he died, and confusion over the conflicted feelings of both relief and regret at his passing.

As Max and her friends enter high school, she becomes withdrawn, isolating  herself from her boyfriend Lucas as well as her friends, who have themselves become preoccupied with the distractions and temptations of high school: after-school clubs, sports teams, and social hierarchies. Throughout the series, Max is portrayed as an outsider, with our first highlighted scene of her current mindset introducing the key leitmotif: the song “Running Up That Hill,” by Kate Bush. The music first appears as incidental music that cuts from the scene of a traumatized Eleven storming out of a classroom, to Max as she wanders the hallway of a high school halfway across the country in a sullen, detached way. We see her looking around in equal parts disaffected ennui, and angry resentment as it becomes apparent that the music is actually diegetic, playing through a set of headphones attached to her Walkman. The very cinematic quality of the shot is one that both the character and the viewer experience simultaneously, an experience still just newly available to teens in the mid-80s with the invention of what was still a bit of a technological phenomenon: the Sony Walkman.

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The Sony Soundabout

Sony Walkman TPS-12There are conflicting origin stories regarding the invention of the Walkman, but, as chronicled by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow in Personal Stereo the most likely involves a wish by Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka to have a cassette player that was less bulky that the tape recorders he was lugging around so that he could listen to music without annoying the people around him. It’s what was termed a “non-obvious” invention: strip down a tape recorder to only it’s playback qualities, enhance those features, and build a lighter headphone to accommodate it. The first model was the TPS-L2, and it was released in Japan in the summer of 1979. It made its debut in America at the end of the year, a superb new tech gadget ready to hit shelves just in time for the holiday shopping season, as long as you could afford it — a hefty $200, or yikes, about $700 in 2022 money.

With a price like that, the Walkman was first marketed to career-oriented middle-class adults (read: yuppies), who used it for the convenience of multi-tasking: catching up on missed business meetings recorded by organized secretaries, or learning new languages as they boarded international flights. But as the Walkman gained popularity and began selling by the thousands, the device became more accessible to a younger and wider audience. As Tuhus-Dubrow writes in Personal Stereo:

By the mid-1980s, it was clear that what was sometimes called the “Walkman revolution” was far more than a short-lived fad. Personal stereos were no longer a novelty but essential equipment for millions of people and a fixture of urban life around the world. (50) […] By 1989, 50 million units had been sold sold, with an increasing variety of looks and features like noise reduction, bright colors, and AM/FM radio support. Competitors were also manufacturing often cheaper, low-budget models to the tune of over 30 million units per year. (50-51)

So it’s no surprise that a character on this era’s preeminent 80s nostalgia-vehicle Stranger Things would be seen locked between the pads of two Sony personal speakers.

Supernatutural Sound

The Walkman effect

Personal Stereo by Rebecca Tuhus-DubrowMusic and music culture has always sparked a significant social and emotional resonance in the lives of teenagers, especially since the years of the vinyl record, which was appropriately marketed to legions of screaming Frank Sinatra and Elvis fans. The introduction of headphones made that listening experience even more insular, contributing to the creation of the bedroom as the location par excellence of the teenager, particularly the moody teenager (but who isn’t?). But the Sony Walkman took that experience outside: it allowed listeners to tune out the noise around them and plug into their favorite music. The experience was unprecedented, and almost immediately prompted a growing concern over issues of isolation, rude behavior, and detachment, known popularly as the “Walkman effect.”

“The fundamental strangeness of the Walkman experience has to do with the disjunction between sight and sound. […] [W]hereas usually music came from some clearly external source — whether speakers at a concert or the stereo system in your living room — with headphones it almost felt like the sounds were originating in your own head.” (46) […] “[C]rucially, you could (and did, whether intentionally or not) erect a barrier between yourself and your surroundings. This feature impeded social interactions and affected public space in a way that was subtle but unsettling.” (54)

This unsettling experience is captured in that moment Sadie Sink’s character Max Mayfield marches moodily down the hallway of Hawkins High to the meeting with the school counselor, observing the private and public moments of a typical day in high school with detached numbness: friends laughing over a joke, a couple making out, an ex-boyfriend’s vanishing smile as she approaches and then continues silently walking past. Everything and everyone seems out of reach, as both character and viewer collaborate as spectators, rather than participants. The music becomes her own personal soundtrack, muting the din as it does for the viewer, and replacing it with the sonic boom of the synth-heavy track, which enhances the drama of an already tension-filled scene. Not for nothing are teenagers considered overly-emotional and self-absorbed, but many of us have undoubtedly had a similar experience, either with a Discman, iPod, or smartphone. The scene only ends when we see Max sitting across from her counselor, who signals for Max to remove her headphones. She quickly presses the stop button and a jarring silence sends us all crashing back to the very real world of depression and grief, one which Max is reluctant to confront and deal with, preferring to hide in the aural equivalent of a safety blanket.

Max MayfieldThroughout the following episodes, we never see Max without this blanket, her trusty Sony WM-8, strapped to her hip at all times. It leads to the key emotional moment in the series, occurring at the end of episode four titled “Dear Billy.” This is the moment when Max, upon learning that she has less than 24 hours left to live, finally makes sense of the emotional maelstrom that she has been dealing with since the end of season 3. In a letter that she writes and reads out loud to the headstone of her deceased step-brother, she describes the emotional weight that she has been carrying around and making her feel that she had to cut herself off from the people who care the most about her. It is in this devastatingly vulnerable moment that Vecna decides to move in for the kill.

Involuntary memory

Preying upon the guilt and trauma of teenagers, Vecna crawls into Max’s mind, spouting the words that she herself has probably repeated to herself over and over the last few months, as if depression itself had become a physical entity. “They can’t help you, Max,” he insists, referring to her friends just at the outer edge of her vision. “There’s a reason you hide from them. You belong here with me.” But now that Max has confronted her feelings and taken ownership of her emotions, she’s finally open to the hope and help that she had been denying herself all season. She hears her friends screaming for her, and more importantly, she hears her favorite song, thrumming through the headphones snapped onto her head only moments before. It’s an ingenious plot device: who hasn’t ever felt the healing power of music, especially at a young age? It’s a universal feeling that transcends age, gender, and social status. (In fact, the saving power of music is made even more obvious, when Eddie plays Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the series finale to distract the demobats from attacking Nancy, Robin, and Steve, literally saving lives in the process.)

Until then, the music had served as a sort of personal therapy for Max. As the Duffer brothers explained in an interview with IndieWire, “That’s us going “OK, Max is in this dire state. How can we get her out of it?” And researching comas, and seeing that music as therapy can make a difference.” Inside Hook went further and spoke with a music therapist to further explore “the way music can help us cope with grief, stress, cognitive issues and a slew of mental illnesses ranging from depression and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and autism.”

[I]t’s definitely the most visibly transformational work I’ve been a part of, where you have people who are more or less nonverbal or disengaged from their environment and socialization and that type of thing, and then if you play a piece of music that they experienced when they were younger or have a particular personal connection to, they can really just physically come to life, even saying words and melodies when they would otherwise be more disengaged.

The Walkman captures that experience unlike anything else could: it locks the listener into their own headspace, creating a central irony. It isolates Max from the present physical environment and traps her into her own head replete with self-defeating, negative thoughts, but it also has the power to liberate her from her torment.

Michael Bull, professor of Sound Studies at University of Sussex interviewed forty British adolescents about their use of the Walkman and summarized his findings in Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. Among their most popular uses, teens reported using their Walkman to energize them, domesticate their surroundings, and as a form of company. But most tellingly,

“subjects reported that they used their personal stereos to vividly evoke fond memories. After all, music, like the sense of smell, has the power to trigger what Proust called “involuntary memory,” which is visceral and emotional, and much more powerful than its voluntary counterpart, the memory of the intellect. With the press of a button, listeners could relive a recent party or summon a feeling from childhood. While other sound systems could serve the same purpose, the intimacy of the personal stereo made it particularly conducive to reminiscence.” (81)

Flooded with the memories of happier times that the music evokes (the school dance, her friendship with Eleven), she not only chooses, but fights, to stay alive, escaping the deadly fate Vecna had in store for her, one built on his own misery, resentment and psychosis. It’s from that moment, as Max is warmly received by the friends that never gave up on her, that Max can finally begin the process of repairing her friendships by dealing openly and honestly with her problems, little by little. This music-as-loophole runs throughout the rest of the series, being the only way to save a potential victim from death by Vecna.

Sony Walkman D-E330

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While the plot twist is made possible by a technological device manufactured and made popular in the 1980s (Tuhus-Dubrow also points out its prominent role in popular media of the time such as Duffer Brothers-favorite Back to the Future), it’s a device that has been improved upon and updated for modern listeners, who can relate via Discman, iPod Nanos, and smartphone. I myself am old enough to have grown up with several different Walkmans (my favorite was an off-brand that was made of marvelous transparent neon-pink plastic which gave you a neat glimpse at the device’s guts), at least two different Discmans (one had the special shock absorber to keep CDs from skipping every time the device was lightly bumped), and an iRiver that changed the entire way I consumed music (I still use this remarkable, outdated device regularly, and probably will until the day I die or they stop manufacturing the battery for it — I hope I die first). These devices went everywhere with me, their mobility, more than their limited and then seemingly limitless capacity, a testament to their usefulness and eventual essentialism. It’s hard to imagine something both more and less hokey than music as a loophole that a teenager from any era could conceivably believe could save their lives, and to that end the show really continued to tap into something universal about growing up.

Thus the Walkman becomes an essential device that moves the entire plot of the fourth season of Stranger Things forward, one made possible by a piece of equipment invented only years before, halfway across the world by a company that built upon the increasing popularity of home-listening devices to its very polite and very personal conclusion. Despite its age, the show’s depiction of music-as-therapy, with the Walkman serving as a magical talisman as powerful as the sword Jim Hopper uses to slay a Demagorgon, still resonates today.  As a Disques editorial from the distant galaxy of 1931 summarized upon the advent of the first personal listening device, the phonograph, puts it:

“[A]ll the unpleasant externals are removed: the interpreter has been disposed of; the audience has been disposed of; the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of. You are alone with the composer and his music. Surely, no more ideal circumstances could be imagined.” (15)

[ Image sources are from here, here, here, here, here, and here.   Any factual information, quotes, and additional sources/quotes not immediately cited have been pulled from Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo, one of my favorites entries in the Object Lessons series. I recommend them all, including Compact Disc which makes a nice companion to this! ]


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