The Boombox Project


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Music and technology have always behaved like two escapees from a Georgia chain gang. Battles were routine, but the shackled pair eventually came to their senses and realized that they weren't going to get far unless they learn to compromise and accommodate each other. Since the 1920s, American music has changed repeatedly with the development of the radio, records, phonograph, jukebox, car radio, television, portable record player, 8-track tape, the Walkman, the CD player, iTunes and the download. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, one music machine that dramatically influenced the sound of music and urban culture was the boombox.

I owned one of these oversized cassette player-radios. It was a handsome silver Aiwa—but I didn't transport it on my shoulder. I purchased it to make cassette recordings that I could then play on my Walkman. The box produced decent sound, so it was perfect for tape mixes at parties in the early 1980s. When the antenna broke a bunch of years ago resulting in poor radio reception, I tossed it. With the release of the new book The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground, I'm a little sorry I did, though I'd have no real use for it today.

The lavish book, by Lyle Owerko [pictured], a filmmaker and photographer, is a trip back in time for anyone familiar with these sonic Samsonites. Originally created for consumers who wanted a powerful, portable rec room away from home, the boombox constantly found and created new markets. Roller-skaters used them to provide a disco soundtrack while dancing in place in parks. Teens who lived at home in cramped apartments dragged them around as a badge of independence. And breakdancers used them to blast big-beat mixes while spinning and flipping on polished surfaces. This fabulous hardback features page after page of photos of boxes and recollections of the cassette culture by a range of contributors.

The boombox was the oversized child of the transistor radio. But unlike the palm-sized radio that was most often enjoyed through a single flesh-toned earpiece, the boombox was meant to be heard—and to annoy.

With its headlight-sized speakers and power-booster for the bass, the bookbox spawned a new type of music consumer—an egocentric and self-centered audiophile who believed that his or her music was more important than your sanity or personal space. Today, the boombox's relatives are the head-pounding car audio system, the iPod cranked all the way up, and the cell-phone communicator who is compelled to talk loudly in public spaces. 

The boombox, for better or worse, was part of music technology's evolution—bigger, louder and made in countries where its makers could hold down costs. But unlike the personal and portable gear that preceded it, the boombox always was about pride, power and pinning everyone else to the wall.

The Boombox Project celebrates the esthetic of personal music technology with just the right display of images, content and smart analysis. Thank goodness, though, the book can be seen and not heard.

JazzWax note: The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground (Abrams Image) by Lyle Owerko with a forward by Spike Lee can be found here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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