In this collection of ads for Sony Ericsson Walkman phones, Bollywood hunk Hrithik Roshan activates the “thump” as audio visualizations overlay urban locations and residents cartwheel over buses; a young woman plugs in her earbuds causing an almost endless number of CD jewel cases winding through the city to fall like dominoes; and an array of listeners in diverse contexts are profiled, punctuated at the end with a salutation from a smartly dressed English gentleman walking home after the last train. While we’ve seen countless commercial representations of mobile phone use and mobile music listening, I’d like to suggest that these ads ask us to ponder the changing visual culture of music and the ways that music listening is increasingly located in transit.
In all of these ads, the visual culture of music is the space that is being occupied or traveled through by the listener. In the second ad, the visual culture of music as space traversed by the listener literally topples CD jewel cases; visual fragments of photographs and images from CDs flash by in an instant while storefronts, streets, blocks, and the city skyline remain. If, as Andrew Goodwin argues, star photographs, album covers, and liner notes worked to establish a visual culture of popular music that helped create the cultural meaning of performers such as David Bowie and Madonna and fueled gendered and queered appreciations and appropriations of these artists’ work, then we must wonder how the visual cultures of music are re-created in the mobile/digital era as these images lose signifying power and bodies and cityscapes increasingly dominate the audiovisual field.
These ads also illustrate the way that music works to choreograph urban travel and how music listening is connected to a reliance on transportation networks and infrastructures, movement patterns, and mental maps that give shape to everyday life in the city. Using concepts such as mobile privatization to describe contemporary listening ignores seismic shifts in the definitions of the public and the private since the 1950s and the diverse ways in which we perform publicness and/or privateness as listeners and users. What Max Dawson has termed “site unspecific” practices highlights the ways in which use is grounded in place, even if place shifts as the user’s body moves. If we view these media experiences as designed for and located in transit, we might begin to think more concretely about contexts of use even as we explode the idea of any unified experience of listening that is tethered to a particular device or a particular location. In doing so, we might begin to think of how the reconfiguration of music as data (replacing the discrete texts long defined by the industry as the single, the track, and the album) allows users to configure music as a data stream that marks and makes rhythms out of urban movements and renders quotidian human journeys beautiful and complex.