Bodies in Musical Bubbles


Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Universal Pictures, 1985

by David Beer

In the 1980s one of the defining images of cool, for me and my friends at least, was Michael J. Fox skateboarding away from school whilst listening to his Walkman in the classic 1985 film Back to the Future. The Huey Lewis and the News soundtrack might sound a little bit dated, but what has become much more fashionable in recent years is the practice of listening to music whilst on the move. 1985 was relatively early days in the history of mobile music, but now such practices are much more ordinary and familiar. It is not hard to see how important mobile music devices have become in people’s lives over recent years.

Millions of these devices have been sold around the world, with the iPod taking the market share. Even just glancing around as we move through any public space we see earphones plugged into ears. There have been arguments made about this representing the end of social space, that people are withdrawing from social contact and that these devices are illustrative of the individualization processes that are a defining part of the modern world.

There might well be some merit in these arguments. Certainly it would seem that escaping into this alternative soundtrack is at least allowing that person to tune out from their surroundings. In these arguments listening to music whilst mobile becomes a kind of social shield. This social shield is then used to cut out unwanted interaction, noise and to lift that individual out of the discomforts of their surroundings.

Indeed, the few social scientists who have written in this area tend to write of the mobile music device as being, to use Marshall McLuhan’s terminology, a kind of ‘earlid’ that can cut out the overwhelming cacophony and din of our everyday worlds. The argument tends to be that these mobile music devices can be used to reclaim public territory in order to make it private and controllable, and  that mobile music devices provide us with a means of shutting out the oppressive downward forces of the urban metropolis as it impinges upon our senses. Mobile music devices, can be imagined as being a tool for protecting the bodily and sensory territory against the backdrop of the unrelenting spaces of modernity, and can cut us off from the more uncomfortable moments we experience.

Similarly these mobile devices are depicted as a means for enchanting the more humdrum spaces through which we pass, a means of bringing to life familiar places and routines, of soundtracking spaces with interesting and evocative music that stimulates our memories and emotions. Indeed, Michael Bull, the most prominent of the social scientists working in this area, describes mobile music devices as providing us with a means of controlling, managing and negotiating the experience of everyday life.

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Universal Pictures, 1985

We can see then that the popular vision of mobile music devices is that they are extremely powerful in their reshaping of ordinary day-to-day experiences. But is this stretching things a bit? Are these devices really this powerful? Are they really able to cut us off from sensory experiences and social connections? When we reflect this does seem quite extreme. As an alternative we could instead think of these devices as providing us with moments within which we are able to ‘tune out’. That is to say that they provide us with temporary moments of distraction, but that we still experience the noise around us, the environment we are in and maybe we even still find ourselves in unwanted social interactions. The place we are in is still able to supersede the mobile music, to make it difficult to hear, to force is to remove the earplugs and to hear what is being said, and so on.

The difficulty is that it is quite hard to think outside of the idea that we are living in times of individualization, a time in which we are witnessing the ongoing collapse of social bonds. As a result, we tend to see these devices in the same terms. When we think about their undoubted influence on people’s lives and the places we inhabit, it becomes hard to see them in any other way. In this sphere of thinking it has become common to imagine mobile music devices as creating a sonic ‘bubble’ around us. This is a vision of a cultural shield that cuts out various sensory and social encounters in favour of a more enjoyable and less chaotic set of experiences. In this vision of the mobile music device as bubble we have a visual metaphor for social withdrawal. If we apply this bubble idea to our streets, towns, cities and even homes, we would begin to imagine public spaces as being populated by bodies within bubbles: each individual moving independently within their own enchanted little enclave, both occupying the space whilst being cut-off and separate. We might even expand this vision beyond mobile music devices to imagine that something similar might be happening through the use of other mobile devices like smartphones.

It is tempting then, to fit mobile music consumption into what have been described as the broader cultural trends of withdrawal, isolation and segregation. These bubbles could be seen as being part of the same processes that are responsible for people shutting themselves away in gated communities, fortifying their homes, gentrifying neighborhoods, using VIP lounges, driving door-to-door in armoured cars and so on. In other words, the bubble image in mobile music, and the vision of people using these devices to shut themselves off from their surroundings, forces us to think about the way they feel about other people, about strangers and about the world they occupy. These devices are being imagined, essentially, as temporary zones of exclusion or segregation driven by a sense of discomfort.

In a recently translated book about bubbles German intellectual Peter Sloterdijk has argued that in the modern age we are shell-less, a condition, he argues, that has been brought about by the collapse of some of our old certainties. As a result, Sloterdijk claims, we look to create shells or bubbles around ourselves. In these bubbles, we can find a new sense of security. Through the shared image of the bubble we might begin to see mobile music in these terms, with Sloterdijk’s vision of shell-less insecure people looking for some sense of bubble-like security. Music then becomes not just a social shield; this concept of the bubble also urges us to think about how music consumption speaks to these broader issues of withdrawal, fear and insecurity.

The problem is that I’m not sure that anybody really knows just how integrated these devices are in social withdrawal. These devices can of course be a source of social interaction and identification. Not only are they a fashion accessory but also networking of devices can mean that new types of connections emerge through the music. New social connections might be emerging that are not conducted in the immediate surroundings but which are happening in the act of networked music listening. But perhaps the main problem is the one I’ve already alluded to, these devices are not as powerful as we might be imagining. The immediacy of our surroundings cannot be escaped all that easily, we might merely be prioritising the music and tuning out the other things we are experiencing. If mobile music devices are creating bubbles of culture around us then we might need to remind ourselves that bubbles are fragile, they can be popped. They might offer us a means of enchanting space but they lack the solid boundaries of other forms of more material segregation, such as that occurring in cities. Perhaps then the bubble is a good metaphor because it allows us to see mobile music as a means of escape or momentary security that is easily open to interruption or invasion by our surroundings.

What we have yet really to understand is how far mobile music might be a further indicator of social insecurity and a need to withdraw. It does suggest though that when we think about these big social and political issues of withdrawal and fear of the other, we need to think about the part that mobile music consumption plays and not just about the more obvious and visible forms of social disconnections that are occurring in our cities. The bubble metaphor might be helpful in imagining the way that listening to music on the move works, but we need to be careful that we don’t see these as concrete sonic bubbles that are simply ending our connections with our immediate environment. Bodies in musical bubbles might have become a normal sight in the years since Michael J. Fox’s skateboard school run, but the images and narratives we draw upon to understand mobile music tend to overplay the power of the devices for shutting out social and material interactions with the world around us, and they also tend to overlook the way that these devices are part of a wider infrastructure of cultural participation, networking and consumption.

About the Author:

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. He is currently writing a book on the relations between new media infrastructures and popular culture. His previous publications include the co-authored book New Media: The Key Concepts (2008, written with Nick Gane) and articles in the journals CITY, Sociology, Cultural Sociology, Mobilities and New Media & Society. He has tentatively started blogging at