Home Asides Pet Peeve: The public playing of personal music

Pet Peeve: The public playing of personal music

by Benjamin Kabak

For those New Yorkers — straphangers and street-walkers alike — boomboxes were once the scourge of New York. Despite nostalgic Times pieces heralding their 1980s impact, the boombox meant music pervaded public space in ways it just shouldn’t. With the advent of the Walkman, personalized music delivered via headphone became the norm, but lately, a new trend has me thinking about the boombox again.

That trend, of course, is a public airing of music. As the Walkman begat the iPod and headphones grew smaller, they also grew leakier. Nowadays, no subway ride is complete without the tinny sounds of someone else’s music filling the air. Today, though, I got to experience the ultimate in subway annoyances. Now that most smartphones have the capacity to play music, people are starting to leave their headphones at home. Using the built-in speaker, selfish riders play their songs into the general atmosphere of the subway. Today, for 30 minutes on my way to work, I got a free listening of some classic Michael Jackson tunes.

Amongst the door-blockers, pole-huggers and leg-spreaders, it’s tough to find someone more disrespectful and more infuriating that the public music player. It shows a certain selfishness and disregard for public spaces that has become a hallmark of the New York City subway over the decades. No one misses that era of the boombox for just that reason, and having it return in the form of a smartphone speaker is an unwelcome development indeed.

You may also like


Marc Shepherd May 31, 2012 - 3:47 pm

Most of the time, people do use the headphones, though they usually leak plenty of sound.

On my morning commute, I choose a seat as far away from any headphones already on the train, and less likely to be contaminated by those that might board later on. But this is frequently not possible. The peace and quiet of my ride is ruined far more often than not.

Adirondacker12800 May 31, 2012 - 4:06 pm

a minor quibble, the Walkman and the boombox are contemporaries. Both phenomena happened more or less at the same time.

You are lucky enough to ride subway cars that are quiet enough to hear the sound leaking out of a fellow rider’s headphones. It’s an annoyance but be thankful the subway car itself is quiet enough for you to be annoyed by it.

pea-jay May 31, 2012 - 4:09 pm

At least smartphone speakers are pathetically underpowered compared to their 1980s predecessors. Annoying yes, but substantially less so. The only time I see boomboxes of any type anymore is when there are onboard dance performances

Quinn Raymond May 31, 2012 - 5:50 pm

I would argue that tinny, underpowered speakers and leaking ear buds are much more annoying than boomboxes. At least with a boombox you get good sound. There is nothing more annoying to me than the hiss of earbuds.

John-2 May 31, 2012 - 4:12 pm

The problem does make a case for the noise of an R-32 with bad air-conditioning, since the loudness of the train solves the leaking music problem (and back in ye olden days, nobody listened to anything on an R-10 except for the R-10, especially on the CPW express run).

What I don’t get is that your average cell phone speaker provides roughly the same music fidelity as a 1965 Motorola transistor radio (AM only). If you’re playing your music on your cellphone without earphones, its just as much you deliberately trying to show the subway-riding world your great taste in music as it is you being too lazy to put the earphones in place.

Alex C May 31, 2012 - 9:50 pm

I’ve seen cases of people rapping along with their awful song trying to show us all how good they are. Feels like it really is just about showing off how cool one is in this cases.

BBnet3000 May 31, 2012 - 4:15 pm

By far my number one peeve as well. Its generally angry young men doing it, who dont know how to behave in society.

Im fairly OK with leaking music in most cases. It is what it is, and if I cant hear it that clearly it doesnt distract me.

The smart phone non-headphone music trend is an absolute travesty though.

Bolwerk May 31, 2012 - 4:15 pm

Being bothered by some noise leaking is just butthert-ness. However, the playing of speakers is pretty rude. Not to mention pointless. The speakers tend to be of such pisspoor quality that they can’t possibly be pleasurable to anyone with any sense of tone.

Then again, people seem to like to blast car stereos that can’t handle the volumes ultra cool dudes demand. I think it’s probably more about attention-seeking than enjoying music. Like how idiots like to take take the mufflers off their cars and bikes.

Jerrold May 31, 2012 - 4:59 pm

And let’s not forget what was apparently the genesis of the boobbox craze: The aftermath of the summer of 1977 blackout. So many of the looters were proudly carrying around a piece of their loot.

Jerrold May 31, 2012 - 5:01 pm

Now I’m LMAO over my own typo above.
I of course meant “boombox”.
We were talking about radios, not brassieres.

UESider May 31, 2012 - 6:21 pm

have to mention the gamers, too

they all seem to fit some sort of psych profile – negative attention seekers of some sort

girls seem to offend in the music category with dudes pulling the equivalent with their smartphone noisy games

Andrew Smith May 31, 2012 - 11:23 pm

Did you ask the person to turn the music off? Occasionally, that actually works. Even if it doesn’t get them to turn it off immediately (and lose face), I’d guess it makes them less likely to do it in future. Some people really do enjoy the social conflict and care nothing about public shunning. Most people, in their heart of hearts, really don’t like being called out as dicks.

Jenn June 1, 2012 - 8:24 am

The only thing worst is the seemingly ubiquitous person-who-JUST-got-a-new-cell-phone and for whatever reason, just canNOT wait to get home to play through EVERY single ringtone that exists.

Yo June 1, 2012 - 9:34 am

Minor headphone leakage really doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t think we are entitled to a subway ride in silence. When it’s loud enough that I can hear the actual song playing on the other person’s headphones then it’s annoying. Obviously, Ben’s non-headphone public playing situation is realllllly annoying and is often enough to make me switch cars at the next stop.

Jimmy June 1, 2012 - 10:01 am

I’ll say what everyone else is thinking: the offenders in these cases tend to be of a certain race.

Bolwerk June 1, 2012 - 10:16 am

Pasty whites listening to electronik supersonik without the lyrics?

Jimmy June 1, 2012 - 10:26 am

Maybe you ride different train lines than I do, but I have yet to see a white person using their iPhone as a boombox. Honestly not trying to be inflammatory here, just making a sociological straphanger observation.

Quinn Raymond June 1, 2012 - 12:59 pm

I guess “Jimmy” is short for Jimmy the Greek?

petey June 1, 2012 - 2:40 pm

oh god boomboxes. and the last car was the smoking car, for cigs or crack. disco out of every storefront. one ton of makeup for that natural look. the advent of yuppies. you can never, ever rehabilitate the 70s.

as for the present day, i’ve recently discovered silicone earplugs. best on the market. won’t give you silence, but they certainly help.



Leave a Comment