5 of the Stupidest Ways We Used to Listen to Music
The ability to listen to a song no one is physically playing at that moment is remarkably new. Like, if Abraham Lincoln wanted to rock out on a whim, he’d have to provide the rocking himself, and we have photographs of that dude. The invention of the phonograph didn’t usher in a nice, linear path of ever-improving, sensible music players, however. Some of the ways we used to listen to music were fuckin’ dumb. Ways like…
The 1920s were a chaotic time: Jazz was introducing young people to the concept of fun, the Great Depression ensured they couldn’t have any, and instead of jukeboxes, we had terrifying life-size mannequins that “played” accordion in exchange for leering at us.
Just kidding, of course — it was actually in exchange for a coin, which customers of bistros and diners willingly dropped into the machines with no apparent fear of activating any curses. Why did their eyes, eyebrows and lips have to move? That’s between you and your god. It’s unclear when and how Accordeo Boys fell out of favor (hopefully “immediately” and “cleansed by fire”), but there are only two left in the U.S. Probably behind you.
If you, like us, were under the impression that self-playing pianos existed only as a sight gag in old cartoons, you’re in for a wilder ride than Mr. Toad’s. They sprang up in the 1890s, when owning a piano was expensive and therefore a sign of class but way easier than learning to play the damn thing. Thanks to rolls of paper encoded with notes that wound through self-playing pianos, everyone could listen to Beethoven right in their own home without ever needing to learn anything.
We know what you’re thinking: “The 1890s… the phonograph had been invented by then, hadn’t it?” It sure had, but it was kind of crappy at reproducing piano music and, more importantly, didn’t allow you to display a bulky status symbol. The self-playing piano was a legitimate craze, outselling normal pianos by 1919. The Great Depression killed it, just like everything else, and so did radio, leaving 20th-century social climbers to find other ways to show off their middling wealth, like fallout shelters and increasingly elaborate Jell-O molds.
The Solar-Powered Walkman
By 1987, vinyl records had long erased all memory of accordion robots and ghost pianists, but it was pretty hard to lug a turntable around on your silly little walks. Cassette tapes changed all that, but even after Sony revolutionized portable music with the Walkman, they realized they could sell even more of them by continuously releasing stupid gimmicks. Some of them played radio, some played video and some of them had boobs, if we understand the designation “DD” correctly.
Possibly the dumbest one, however, was the solar-powered Walkman. It was a nice idea in theory — changing batteries was a top-10 annoyance in the 1980s, up there with Capri Sun straws and Reaganomics. Except it had to charge for hours in the sun before it even thought about playing a tape. Incredibly, the solar panel was on the side that sat next to your body, so there was no way to charge it on the go, either. Fortunately, it also had a battery compartment, so it was really just a normal Walkman that also functioned as a bright yellow “I’m a sucker” sign.
By the 1990s, buying cassettes instead of CDs was a sign that you were poor, a nerd, or worse, a mixtape guy. Portable music had to change along with the media, but it turns out there’s a reason we don’t play discs vertically. You’d be strutting along to Ace of Base or whatever, hit leftie a little too hard and boom — the dreaded skip. You could learn to either walk really carefully or live with merely I’ing the sign.
The first Discmans had physical rubber shock absorbers, but they were bulky, and oh yeah, didn’t work. It took until 1995 for Sony to develop reliable anti-skip technology, and by 2000, they were still refining it. That year’s model sold for $199.95, and that’s in Y2K dollars. You probably could have bought a house for that. Presumably, nobody bought it because MP3 players were already a thing and the first iPod came out just the next year, but at that point, it was surely for the love of the game.
MP3 players brought us most of the way to the reality we know now: entire libraries of music in our pockets, for free or a nominal price (though our iPods never tried to sell us mattresses). But what if you could buy only a 60-second snippet of a song for $3.99 each? Again, this is early 2000s money, so that’s the whole squad’s Taco Bell order.
Such was the premise of HitClips, technically a toy that began life inside Happy Meals but proved so popular that they were eventually sold right alongside the big boy music players. They were brightly colored and whimsically shaped players into which one loaded tiny chips that played snippets of your favorite boy band jam. Sure, you could get the whole song for cheaper, but these functioned as much as fashion accessories as music players. You could even get a tiny boombox to play the clips out loud. Sure, you could get a real boombox to play the whole song, but… we’re out of explanations.
By 2004, HitClips had entered the same circle of Y2K hell as Beanie Babies and velvet tracksuits, but it lives on in our hearts and our Spotify playlists.