Located in Transit: Music and the Mobile Phone

Curator's Note

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. 



I really like this post, as well as the opportunity to revisit the ways in which mobile media like the mp3 player/phone are advertised.

You raise an excellent point about the "visual culture of music" having to do with the space traversed by the listener. As you've pointed out, more often than not, these ads showcase the listening space and the "visual culture of music" as the cityscape. However, I wonder if there's a contradiction here. The infrastructural systems and arteries that allow us to move through city space are highlighted, as are spaces of waiting and travel. Yet, when an individual is shown pausing or revelling in an urban place, that experience still seems highly personalized and private (especially in the third ad). Perhaps, suggesting that the walkman phone can make your urban experience more tolerable by blocking it out. Simultaneously, I think that the use and representation of mobile media in this manner does make the categories of public/private performance and experience more complex. I'm sure others will have more thoughts on this as well.

Hi, Ben.  Lovely post.  I am very interested in the places you might take this curation -- particularly with regard to an investigation of what you call "contexts of use." 

With regard to the last video in particular, the entanglement of individuals with their material technology, and their music- and mobile application-saturated movement across space and specific social territory reminded me of what Margaret Morse deems "distraction."  (And might hook-up with what Germaine called "blocking out" urban experience.) The very 'spaced-out' relationship the individuals in this ad demonstrate regarding their surroundings and social situation seem to dovetail with Morse's notions of virtuality, nonspace, and interiority.  

I wonder, then, how the political might puncture mobile- and music-mediated urban movement?  What does this transgression of space (real and virtual) say about our practiced cultural values? Are urban places simply visual commodities to be exchanged in the constellation of one's audio-visual culture during the daily commute?

I have no conclusive answers to the proposed questions above, but hope others might feel compelled to jump in. Thanks for kicking us off this week, Ben.

Germaine, I think you hit on something.  Maybe private is not the right word, but personal is.  It does seem that these moments of joy/revelation or psychological awareness do take place on the individual level (and largely internally). While personal, they are never really private, because these users/listeners do remain aware of their bodies' placement in the city.  In other words, one can revel in a song and its place in what Tim Lawrence would call one's "audiobiography," but one needs to retain an awareness of one's surroundings. We've often talked about private and personal as interchangeable, but maybe experiences like listening in the city draw attention to the subtle differences between these p words.  

Emily, I do think that raising the political question is important.  The collision here between the concerns of a sound studies project (mobile sound, compression technologies, digital sound quality, etc.)  and a visual culture project rooted in representations and constructions of space and alterity opens up new questions about the interaction of sound and vision in the contemporary city.  The decreased power of older commercial visualizations of music concurrent with the rise of mobile devices and read/write web culture seems to open up more questions about how music will be represented, what experiences music will accompany, and who will be listening.  In other words, I would  argue that shifts towards pervasive computing and the ubiquity of mobile devices have a lot to do with fights over how (and who will) control audiovisual culture on the streets and in the ears.  And I think this fight has to do with the localized and/or located contexts of listening, production, and distribution.  It excites me that so many groups, artists, and  fans want to put sound back into the city at the very moment that technology pundits posit a proliferation of walled sonic cocoons tethered to our wireless walled gardens.  

Michael Bull commented that people use mobile music devices to create their personal “bubble.”  Those devices provided their users exceptional power of control over their experience of time and space in the city.  Mobile music device users also managed their mood through the micro-management of personalized music.  Bull has observed that the trend towards ‘mediated urban isolation’ is growing significance.

Your post made me rethink about the mobile music as data in city space.  I am very interested in how location based mobile devices could share/ tag city stories in text, photo and sound formats.  Your post leads me to think about the music rhythms and urban movements.

Thanks for the post and sharing the commercials.  It is lovely and shows the usage of mobile music in public place.  In the place where I live, we have not seen many commercial representations of mobile phone use and mobile music listening.  Many of the mobile phone ads are very functional.

 Hi Ben

I'll add my thanks to the others for a really interesting post and a great way to start off the week and have a couple of rather random ideas to throw into the discussion.

I too was struck by ideas of how your post/adverts challenge ideas of Bull's bubble and suggests there's a more complex form of engagement going on when listening to music in public spaces. I also wonder how memory may fit into this. Music can often evoke memories (just as so many things can) and I wonder how the individual experience of listening to a mobile music device may layer the immediacy of the music itself and the listeners' physical surroundings with the recall of past moments (or even the creation of new memories and associations). So the idea of 'personal' discussed in the above comments seems key, not just in the individuality of movement/music but also in what that can evoke in the listener.

The other thing that's noticeable about a couple of the adverts is the way the music/space experience is ultimately interrupted by a phone call. Those ads seem to be privileging the technology as a phone despite the strong integration of the walkman branding into them - you just happen to be able to listen to music while you're waiting for that all important phone call. Technological convergence is clearly positioned as hierarchical.

So just a couple of alternative perspectives. I'm looking forward to seeing where this week goes.

Thanks for this post -- it's great to see a discussion of the importance of music and musical experience to mobile media. I think it's noteworthy that, at least in the first video, the dancing is not just solo, but participatory -- especially the pair of guys on the metro, and the two women in the outdoor cafe. So, as Ben says in his reply to Germaine, users/listeners remain aware of their bodies' placement in the city, but it's not just that mobile listening practices are emplaced in urban spaces, they're also often interpersonal

I've done some work on children's uses of MP3 players, where an especially notable practice is that kids often share their earbuds and listen with their friends (you can see this on the NYC subway all the time) -- and the speakers on mobile phones increase the possibilities for shared listening. So the "personal" or "private" is often really interpersonal, and some of the intensity of memory and musical experience can come out of the fact of sharing that experience with an intimate. I see elements of the same dynamic in the video where pairs of dancers set themselves off from the people around them as they share an intense musical experience. 

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