Minni Gupta - Ethnography

Musically Unplugged

The social isolation in the music world


Music has played an undeniably influential role in the lives of our generation. The successful advancement in musical technologies has proven this point over the last two decades. The MTV generation popularized music videos and recognition of popular music through MTV’s Annual Music Video Awards, the Grammy’s and other televised awards created a greater demand for the availability of music beyond records, cassettes and CDs.

Our generation saw the evolution of music’s airtime with radio shows created to filter music according to genre, locality, age group and popularity. Movies like Spice World and documentaries following world famous rock bands created a strong connection between the audience and their performers, allowing listeners to become involved in the lives of their musical idols. Come to think about it – what would a teenager today have known about the impact the Woodstock Music Festival had on the generation of rock and roll if it wasn’t documented in the film Woodstock for music appreciators of today? With these advancements, the musical technologies evolved to create the boom box, portable CD players, and the world-changing iPod generation.

Today, I can plug my headphones into an internet radio program like Pandora, or Slacker Radio on my smart phone and recreate the feeling generations before me experienced as they listened to LPs of The Beatles, The Who, and other similar legendary bands. However, with this connection to a world outside my physical surroundings, I have the option of disconnecting from my physical presence and creating a social isolation for myself. Headphones have made the duality in our lives and given us options in creating relationships unlike those available to any generation before. While this has been an enriching experience, allowing us to appreciate and recreate an individualistic taste in music, it has also impacted our ability to face, literally even, what’s in front of us.
As a beneficiary of this evolution as well as a culprit of this disconnection from my present world, I have set out to explore how much I would remain connected to my musical world once unplugged from it in my daily life.

History of Headphones

I have never appreciated the creation and evolution of headphones till I had to stow them away in the corner of my closet for this assignment. I set out to read and learn about the ingenious innovators behind the creation of this device and understood the influence the media played in creating its’ significance today. From the famous image of John Cusack holding up a blaring stereo to boldly declare his love in Say Anything, to the mind-blasting experience of the 6-footh speakers McCauley Culkin turns up to his father’s disapproval in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video, musical mediums in the late 1980s proved that big was best. Headphones grew popular later in musical evolution with scenes of night clubs and DJs donning Sennheiser headphones set the level of coolness. My first memory of headphones was from the music video for the compilation song from 1985 “We Are the World” as Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner with other world famous singers sang for Africa with headphones helping them create their music. I was in awe with this technology and wondered how this powerful tool helped create this music.

According to Listen Closely: A History of Headphones, Beyerdynamic began marketing some of the world’s finest headphones as early as the 1930s. They invented the first “dynamic headphones” in 1937 and continue to modify that version presently. However, the article also states that “according to the World of Invention, Jazz musician John C. Koss invented stereo headphones … in 1958” and the success of his design was in its’ transportability. Consequently, this valuable invention found an “instant market among musicians and listeners alike”.

This instant success hasn’t trickled down as today’s generation enjoy the creation of a wide variety of headphones like the signature white pair of Apple, or rap artist Dr.Dre’s “Beat” headphones. The music industry and musical technologies have played hand in hand to make the success and encourage the inclusion of their users into a world of music that could have originated geographically and historically in a completely different context.



As I face my challenges of this isolation and dual scenarios, I decide to take off my headphones if I’m in a social atmosphere. This has been my primary form of research as I unplugged my headphones for 4 weeks of commute to and from campus, in between classes, at the gym, and while reading or doing homework. Here is the log I kept of my observations as I connected to the real-world once again.


Week One: Easy Start
February 12th:
I was so excited to start my experiment I actually unplugged my headphones before the formal date of the experience commencing. I actually heard the most hilarious conversation between an old acquaintance and a girl he knew on the bus on Monday. Mondays are the best days to ride the Blacksburg Transit if you want to know the highlights of the weekend – all anyone was talking about was how much they spent downtown and who had the most ridiculous dance moves at a party. There was also a lot more gossip that I couldn’t quite follow because even though there was only a few people conversing, they decided to speak in “code” so as not to let anyone else in on the juicy news.

But going back to the old acquaintance – I would never have recognized him until I heard his original one liners, tried and tested on myself and many other girlfriends in the past, being practiced just as I remembered them at eleven in the morning. Glad to know some people are dedicated to “the cause”!

The rest of the week has been refreshingly entertaining as I’ve realized that the afternoon buses actually do have the radio on; one bust driver likes to tune into WUVT’s station, while a younger driver always plays K92. I would have imagined the 5.30 pm bus to be the loudest but it has been a surprisingly quiet ride home with everyone plugged into their iPods, internet radio stations or on their phones in a different conversation. I think being too physically close for comfort encourages our antisocial behavior. I also realized how much better prepared I would be to hop off the bus at my stop as I wouldn’t be lost in my usual daydreams at the end of the day. I like this new change!

Week Two: Slight Panic
February 16th:
Forgot my sunglasses today; and along with the headphones missing it almost felt like I was half dressed for school. Definitely don’t appreciate having to make eye contact and have an uninterrupted earshot of every conversation surrounding me. I don’t think I would have realized how uncomfortable I felt about this if I hadn’t lit a cigarette while crossing the drillfield and heard someone comment about it behind me. This makes me wonder, are my headphones and sunglasses ammunition against the reactions people would have to my habits or actions in public? I guess I do care what people think after all but have never had to face it unarmed until today.

I’m confident that I’m not alone in this defense tactic. “Kanye Jr.” (a boy I’ve noticed on campus over the years, always impeccably dressed, with a flashy pair of sunglasses, walk recognizable buildings away and music constantly blaring out of his white iPod headphones) is my partner in crime when it comes to walking through campus with no concern to judgment. Or people. I have seen people call out to him trying to catch his attention and him have absolutely no response to them as he walks past Squires or Owens completely in his own world. I guess I’ve been the same with my habits as I ignore them with the help of my musical world. It’s going to be interesting to see how the next two and a half weeks go by with no ammo.

Week Three: Surprising Results
February 18th:
I’ve started two new alternatives this week as I’ve missed the sound of voices (artists) in my head – my shower radio has made a comeback since freshman year and I’ve had the news channel on a lot more than ever before. I’ve actually really enjoyed watching the CNN morning news before starting my day, having something to stir around in my head and then coming home to a little shower karaoke to wind down.

These personal progressions however haven’t completely made up for the awkward, defenseless feeling I have around campus. Conversations around me have turned annoying, I’ve learned how much I enjoyed having a world of my own, and I’ve turned to walking with my eyes on my feet a lot more – that could just be the wind though! Also, I haven’t lit a cigarette on campus at all this week… Guess this would count as a good result?

Week Four: (Almost) Back to Square One
February 23rd:
I cheated a little bit today. Well that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but when I write, I need music and therefore dug out my headphones for three grueling nights at the Math Emporium. In preparation for my Senior Seminar presentation, I had my Pandora station back on track and put together my paper and presentation over three sleepless nights. I have a feeling it was the nerves of making this presentation and lack of sleep, but when I left for school this morning I pulled out my iPod and turned on my usual morning playlist. I think I’m allowed a day’s leeway with this presentation on my shoulders but I’ll write more at the end of the week to see how strong I can be about sticking to it.

February 27th:
I made it through the second half of the week quite alright! I managed to tuck the headphones deep in my purse and actually made a friend on the bus. A colleague who lives a bus stop away from me rides the same bus I do to work twice a week and I hadn’t noticed that till today when I sat down across from her and without the headphones, I made the initiative to start a conversation. Katie was actually not listening to music and when I asked her why she said it was solely because her iPod had died. I’m relieved to know that Katie, Kanye Jr. and I are all in the same boat with our musical dependencies! Well, from the looks of it, I may be able to break this habit and enjoy music only when I’m able to in a communal sense.

This brings me to my second point of today’s post: my roommate and I spent this afternoon exchanging music and finding new songs after a very long time. It reminded me of the weekend my best friend and I listened to the newly released Britney Spears CD ten years ago, singing along to the lyrics on the inner CD flap. In ten years, I couldn’t remember the last time we discovered new music and excitedly sang along to the lyrics on a CD like I had this afternoon.

So for a week of breaking under a bit of pressure, I rediscovered an old excitement for music I hadn’t in a very long time!

Data Analysis

My weekly updates as presented above have shown my experience without the headphones on campus. It has been a month of strong observations and self reflection as I’ve learned my dependencies and insecurities. Most importantly, I’ve seen how much more I’ve learned and experienced without my headphones plugged in. I’ve been a lot more aware of my surroundings, and think that if I had the possibility to remain unplugged, I could be learning a lot more about the social and physical world surrounding me.

Then again, I think, if I do keep myself clued in on what is happening around me, I’m losing out on the freedom of being an individual and getting through my day with exactly what I need to get by. If I enjoy listening to a playlist as I ride the bus to school, I wouldn’t mind giving up those 10 minutes of socializing and observations of a little “Me-time” as I start or wind up my day.

I think that this month has taught me to recognize myself the best, as a part of the on- and off- campus community. More importantly, I’ve learned that I can keep connected to my musical world in different forms that would still revert and recreate sentiments from the past but involve more human communication; thus making me a more socially aware being.


This assignment has allowed me to reassess my behavior as a prime representation of my generation and our general attitudes towards being defenselessly social, recognizing our place in different communities and respecting some social norms in specific communities. As we’ve been told we are the IT-generation and the rapidly developing class of creatures that have been rewired to un-relatable terms, a step back in this sense could set our “wiring” back to original settings and make us socially aware as we once were.

Works Cited