Speaker for the Streets
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
One of the best things about NYC is the noise. Over 8 million people just simply existing comes in more increased audible waves than you would ever imagine. But perhaps the noise which transcends all else is the manufactured sounds that come from the unmistakable JBL Flip speaker.
It’s 6:12am, and I can hear Destiny’s Child 2001 hit “Survivor” from my small desk in my living room. I’m in the midst of a morning ritual complete with coffee, my dog at my feet and today’s rotation of early 2000s smash R&B hits blaring from the street outside my roommates window. That is how loud it is. I can roughly make out the words. “I’m a survivor, I’m not gon’ give up, I’m not gon’ stop, I’m gon’ work harder.”
I hated this song in my adolescence, but at this particular moment it seems appropriate as I try to will myself into doing some adult shit. I mouth the words thankful for the considerate soul who decided to bless the neighborhood with this morning affirmation before 7am. When I leave for the day, I see that the source of this small blessing is a familiar object, the JBL Flip 4 portable speaker.
The Flip speaker series, JBL Harman product was deemed the Best Inexpensive Wireless Speaker by the 2019 Consumers Report. The speaker retails less than $100 a unit making them very accessible. Bluetooth, a fairly new technology dating back only two decades, allows you to connect your personal album collection from your phone.
Communal listening of course dates back well beyond the past few decades. There is a long tradition of gathering around the record player or radio. The introduction of loudspeakers allowed sound waves to travel beyond the walls of home and the JBL speaker has become a convenient stand in for the boombox on the block.
The object is sleek and tubular with soft rubber material. It fits easily in the palm of your hand and even comes with, what I can only imagine, is a handy wrist band. The name Flip implies that no matter where you are in the world, you can carry your JBL speaker and lay it on its side of flip it to a vertical stance. It was made for the streets.
Flip is not only a vestige of my childhood but it becomes a cultural preservation tool. This speaker allows for culture being forced out of some spaces to cling to the brick facades of a neighborhood disappearing. My block is typically old school music. A few blocks away on Flatbush Avenue, I was introduced to reggae. The high school down the street on Classon Avenue keeps me up-to-date on the freshest hip-hop. The distinguished Flip speaker becomes a marker of summertime, allows for an impromptu dance party on the sidewalk, and forms a sense of community.
In New York, no love goes untested, and the JBL speaker does not fall short. I detest JBL speakers being played on the subway. It feels like I don’t have the choice to retreat from bad taste like whatever unbearable song Lil Uzi Vert just released. It’s imposing. But it also triggers something else in me, a type of empathy, especially when it is a teenager with the speaker. I see myself in that person, wanting to shout out my identity and forcing people to see me in a world that persistently denies my existence. Maybe the speaker gives us a way to say who we are without it leaving our lips.
Walking up to my apartment door, I could hear a deep cut of soul classics coming from my stoop and I spot the uniquely distinct JBL speaker. I asked the owner, how long he had his black JBL speaker placed in the water bottle holder on his bike. He quickly corrected me, while never faltering from a mean two step “It’s a UE [Ultimate Ear], bought it in 2015”. I take a closer look and search for the bright red square logo with the JBL imprint I know I will find, but it is not there. The conversation is cut short when the song changes to an uptempo stone cold groove. “Yes ma’ am, this is my song!”