Highway to Hell

Most mornings do not begin by walking across a snow-covered campus as a young man in flame-colored pants and an intergalactic backpack—think the cosmos meet tie-dye—blasts AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Is the music emanating from his phone, I wonder? A portable bluetooth speaker placed just so? Am I in the future, where people have branded walk-up songs not just in baseball but also in life?

While some passersby were likely annoyed by the in-your-face music-playing on the first day back to class, I was surprised that there were still people alive who played their music out loud in public spaces. Stumbling upon this random AC/DC fan, who surely was younger than the 1979 song, felt like finding a child who has just experienced the joys of putting dry ice in warm water. Cue the rapturous vapors and the giddiness of first-time discovery.

In the 1980s, and even in the early 1990s, we had boomboxes. My favorite was a Sharp QT-50 in lavender with a grey, pink, and aqua shoulder strap. On eBay, the boombox of my youth is on sale from $75 to $150. I am pretty sure it cost a lot less than that price range when my mother bought it. My friends and I would spend many a slumber party listening to the classic rock, hip-hop, or pop station with our fingers perched above the cassette player’s seafoam green and peach play and record buttons, eager to record Kylie Minogue’s cover of “Locomotion,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and Naughty by Nature’s then-scandalous “O.P.P.”

Nevermind I had no idea what the second “p” stood for as my friends and I danced in a tight, all-girl circle at the middle-school dance. We loved the upbeat tempo and the opening line, “Arm me with harmony.” Weaponizing melody sounded revolutionary, even though we would later learn that the second “p” stood for “Other People’s Property,” which was the nicest, least misogynistic way of saying what the acronym really stood for.

In the years that followed middle school dances and blasting songs we were sure no one older than us would ever understand, the way we played music became more and more personal and private. Audiologists rejoiced everywhere, until it was confirmed that the headphones we listened to on our Walkmans, Discmans, deck-of-card-sized iPods, and other MP3 devices could also damage our hearing, perhaps even more so with earbuds. The resurgence of on-ear headphones took flight in earnest in the early aughts, thanks in large part to Dr. Dre’s Beats. Then the debate over whether a headphone jack was obsolete commenced once Apple removed the 3.5-millimeter jack from its iPhone 7; however, rumor has it the company is bringing the jack back for die-hard wired-lovers.

All of this is to say that actually hearing someone’s music blatantly played out loud, not just turned up too loudly, spilling into the air from behind some listening device, feels quaint, even nostalgic. I am sure there are many who would find this stranger’s music choice gross or as an assault on their own reverie-of-choice. Dr. Harry Witchel told the BBC people who play their music out loud tend to be “marking social territory,” which is fascinating to think about.

But I have to admit: I kind of dug it. Walking through the grey Gothic architecture glazed in snow and ice and hearing, “No stop signs, speed limit / Nobody’s gonna slow me down,” made me laugh about the pride required to signal such bravado and to remember a time when a girl waited for a DJ to preview a song. The exquisite beauty I felt capturing a whole, complete song without having an intro or outro cut from the cassette felt like magic.

In one lifetime, I spun my mom’s 45s (“Hey Jude” by The Beatles and “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar) to watching the physicality of music disappear into the ether, into a flood of people holding up their cell phones to film a concert instead of dancing, twirling, stomping, holding one another in concert to a communal beat.