Snuggled in, over or around our ears – or in more lurid terms penetrating, pinning and cupping our ears – headphones intimately connect humans to machines in all manner of relationships. Many have never gone beyond the default married-my-high-school-sweetheart variety that arrives with our smartphones. Others have never tried anything other than what they lost their virginity to. I certainly hadn’t until relatively late in life. Whichever default headphones arrived with my Walkman, iPod or smartphone were satisfactory and, when they broke, I replaced them with the cheapest exact copy on the market. It was an uneventful consistently suburban – or subaudio – life.
Every now and then I might join the mile-high club with a transcontinental single-serving pairing, salubriously packaged like a condom and handed over with a serviette. It’s pointless getting attached to them, their double prongs only fit in one set of holes. Or have a little feel-up with a friend’s over-the-ear pair. ‘You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear,’ they might say, echoing Natalie Portman in the film Garden State (2004), holding out her phones like a pair of big heaving jugs for Zach Braff to motormouth. Natalie’s face smiles expectantly as the opening bars of The Shins track swells into Zach’s ears and his affected nonchalance gives way to a teeny glimmer of a smile. It is a moment of connection that leads to a different relationship with life, and Natalie. Sometimes the song does change your life like that, other times the headphones feel a little too warm and sweaty still, as if you’ve just walked in on people right after they’ve had sex. Then there’s the anonymous pairing that occurs at galleries and museums. Oh recall the days, back before 2020, when we just went around, prophylactic free, popping any old public headphones on our crowns? Those were the days of free love for machine–human relationships, before machines too became stigmatised for carrying sensually transmitted infections.
At some point in my own subaudio oblivion, the default headphones started breaking more and more – possible correlations between increased suburban divorce and separation rates are not unlikely. You know those headphones, where stereo becomes mono, and you have to hold the cord in just the right way to hear anything. Relationship status: it’s complicated. Whether through increased use as more of life turned online, or through engineered obsolescence – as we have probably all discovered by now, things — and relationships — are designed to fall apart so that we buy more. But, with the additional environmental pressure damning my co-dependency with consumer goods for being singularly responsible for the death of this planet, a wave of existential guilt forced me to start questioning my life choices: was the machine-normative subaudio family unit of me, smartphone and standard-issue headphones the only way to get down? They were idle speculations initially; let’s call it my bi-curious phase of being possibly maybe open to other types of headphones, but with no real reason to take action. The market had not yet dictated.
As it turns out, our beloved daily machine genital, I mean headphones, are the love child of Mormon Nathaniel Baldwin and the universalising tyranny of the US military. Yes, you don’t need to tell me that most consumer technology emerges from the military industrial complex, but that’s not for this little ditty of an essay. This little ditty is about how Nat ‘Baldy’ was frustrated that he couldn’t hear his Mormon sermons clearly, and so tinkered away at creating headphones that received and transmitted sound without the need of electricity, and could be positioned on either side of the head. He sent a prototype along with a note written in purple ink, on blue-and-pink paper – no, I’m not making this up, it’s according to the Smithsonian – to the US Navy, who at first resisted his advances and then came around to ordering 100 pairs of Baldy phones in 1910, only to discover they were taking ages to arrive because Nat was making them by hand at his kitchen table. At first the US military tried to move him and his kitchen facility to the East Coast, but Nat couldn’t leave Utah as he was a polygamist – so says the Smithsonian. As a result, the relationship became long distance: a manufacturer helped him get a patent and set up factory in his home state.
Fast forward to the present day and it was Apple’s change of the headphone jack that got me tinkering away at the kitchen table with different ways to connect my ears to my machine. Old jacks just didn’t fit into old jills anymore. Suddenly, I couldn’t charge the phone and listen to headphones at the same time. The market had dictated and I started exploring Bluetooth headphones. Let’s compare this with the rebound-through-Tinder phase, and after my first nervous and tentative match and hook-up, I was blown away by no-strings-attached listening. I could wander the entire house without having the extra baggage of a device weighing my booty down. I could get up from the computer and wear the headphones to the kitchen or bathroom without the computer getting possessive, jerking my head back as if I were in a sweatshop. No need to detangle the strings of headphones jammed in the pocket. I went into an exhilarated exploratory phase, trying all the cheap and cheerful Bluetooth models on the market – from behind-the-ears waterproof sports hooks to the first in-ear pods that barely had battery life for an hour. I learnt there’s not only heteronormative vanilla ways of connecting ears to machines, and that some lovers are more talented than others. It’s a question of finding the right chemistry.
Bluetooth headphones did for my machine–audio relationship what first the Walkman and later the iPod did for headphones: it made it mobile and independent. Before the Walkman, headphones were tethered to massive stereos. The first commercial stereo headphones came out in 1958, to accompany the ‘private listening system’ comprising phonograph, speaker and headphone jacks developed by John Koss. Sales allegedly boomed among men who had returned from World War II and immediately recognised the headphone technology. Until then music had been a social experience, but with this man-cave starter kit, Koss and WWII birthed the private music experience and an entire archetype of men annoyingly obsessed with imperceptible slights of audio quality. To be clear, I am not an audiophile, spoiler alert: this essay will not reach that technical nirvana.
When the Walkman came along, private music became portable and everyone had the ability to choose a soundtrack to turn their life into a movie. Music became not only the audio stimulation, but integral to the visual stimulation – you know how one song can sound completely different in front of a sunset or in front of a computer screen, and how the experience of a sunset or computer screen can be changed completely by changing the track. Music affects our emotions, feelings, moods and disposition, all of which affect our overall sensory and psychological reading of an experience. As William Gibson wrote in 1993, ‘The Sony Walkman has done more to change human perception than any virtual reality gadget. I can’t remember any technological experience since that was quite so wonderful as being able to take music and move it through landscapes and architecture.’ And just when tape cassettes started seeming too premeditated, possibly dampening the spontaneity, the iPod’s seminal shuffle function and huge storage facility reintroduced an element of serendipity to the pairing of music with setting.
Besides mediating our own perceptions, headphones also mediate public and private realms. This is something I first experienced when I bought my first big brightly coloured ear cups – in the office, they served as a welcome ‘do not disturb’ sign, and in public, bouncing in my shoes to a dance track or swerving off into bittersweet oblivion with a sad song, a feeling of smug satisfaction. One doesn’t even need a pair of trophy-wife headphones by fashion brands such as Beats by Dre, or any one of the celebrity endorsed or designed models. There is something deeply satisfying about showing off that one is enjoying one’s own private sound bubble, which could be absolutely anything, and you couldn’t give two fucks what anyone thinks. It’s the Patrick Bateman headphones meme – behind that smile could be a serial killer listening to anything from ‘Walking on Sunshine’ by Katrina and the Waves to ‘Off The Grid’ by Kanye West.
Is this a kind of cuckold? Although there is apparently no official fetish – I would like to speak to the manager of the fetish rubber stampers – for people’s headphone wearing, the website Headphet with its collections of images of women wearing headphones does indicate otherwise. There don’t seem to be any websites dedicated to men wearing headphones, which may be because appreciators of such a fetish are less demonstrative and because women have always been more objectified, or because a woman indulging in the selfish pleasure of listening to her own music might just be what is needed to arouse the male entitlement logic of patriarchal sexuality. The allure of her unavailability – of her deliberate decision to block him out of her hearing range – seems to be a turn on. It recounts what might be the first cuckold scene in a Hollywood movie, The Getaway (1972). A wife, played by Sally Struthers, is wearing bright yellow headphones and dancing wildly, while her husband, portrayed by Jack Dodson, is tied up by their kidnapper played by Al Lettieri, who then proceeds to engage in some laughable shenanigans with the wife. Film critic Geoff Pevere opines that the real cuckold of the movie, however, was in the not-at-all-secret affair between stars Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, whose husband at the time was Paramount chief Robert Evans.
Actually, it was an unexpected feeling of cuckold that recently got me questioning my latest bae, a pair of high stakes Sony WH-1000XM3 with Active Noise Cancelling in a sultry grey silver. After my free and footloose polyamory, I was starting to collect a mass of tangled wires in my top desk drawer, and more than that, the lockdown had me craving just a quantum of escape. It was time to start exploring longer terms of attachment again. This babe’s padded case with adaptors for every type of jack and hole stated clearly that it wanted to be treated like a princess. Slip on the not excessively large cups, with the weighted but light, snug soft band and rims, and immediately the world is set at bay. It’s just you and me baby, and I haven’t even switched them on yet. Beneath the left lobe, first clit for the ‘on’ button, and the silence whooooshes into my ears like a husky whisper. I still get goosebumps every time. Then there’s nothing. Not even my fingers typing this. In my apartment, alone, with no sound, I could be anywhere; I could be nowhere. The soothing effect of my own self-chosen aloneness in this mega-antheap of modern civilisation has such an almost erotic quality, I don’t even turn on music anymore. Here is a cuckold in which my enjoying my own silence is so self-satisfying, I don’t even need to share or rub it in your face. I’m just refusing the world and it feels fucking fantastic.
That wasn’t the cuckold that got me thinking though. It was when a friend came over, and in a Natalie Portman move, I offered them a listen of silence. My frozen face smiling expectantly, and theirs concentrating on listening, but there was no connection. I tried to speak to him, but he couldn’t hear. I felt the effervescence of jealousy start bubbling up; not of my friend, but of Sony, of that special thing that until that point only the two of us had. Later, it was my reaction, not Sony’s betrayal, that discomfited me. I had to reconsider if I had really been living in an onanistic relationship with myself, or if Sony had far more agency in our dallying than I realised.
While I might have allowed Sony to inveigle itself into my affections by being so slick, low maintenance and subtle, it is by no means a passive object of my affections. Active noise cancelling works by monitoring ambient sound through microphones on the outside of the headset. Based on the ambient sound, onboard electronics will create an anti-noise sound that is a direct inverted wavelength of the ambient sound and played through the headphones along with the music. It’s said to actually be better for ears, since the volume of music can be lower – and headphones are considered the main reason for hearing loss increasing by 30% over the past 20 years. Headphones are also said to be a driving factor in the loneliness epidemic. Recent research found that the average Brit goes five weeks without talking to anyone new, and 38% of them use headphones to avoid talking to people. During my research on these particular statistics, I happened on the Leonardo DiCaprio sex rumour, of how during sex he closes his eyes, puts on noise cancelling headphones, starts vaping and just motions to his partner to keep going. Then I knew: Sony and I were moving too fast; we needed to see others.
Was I really refusing the world, or was Sony seducing me into believing only our relationship was real, and slowly separating me from all else that I found comfort in? Who benefits from humans becoming deaf, lonely and onanistic? It might have felt like it was just me and Sony, but headphones are the coniunctio – the alchemical union of opposites – between humans and the machine cultural complex. Like tentacles of a hentai octopus, this informational network winds its way through our human orifices via headphones, linking the tendrils of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, fibre-optic, plain old telecord to our carnal selves. Thousands of tentacles stretched across the world in and through our ears and mouths, vibrating us with data and communicating our vibrations as information. In fact, it’s not chemistry; it’s physics.