I can remember my first time. Can you? The packaging was so perfect, your fingers would tremble a little bit while opening it. Everything was crisp and white. You had this almost-irresistible impulse to keep everything in its place. A neatly folded pair of earbuds, two Apple logo stickers, a sleek charging cable. And, screen protected by a clear plastic sheet that you'd either immediately remove or try to preserve for as long as possible, an iPod. After plugging it into the computer, iTunes would immediately prompt you to name your new best friend. As far as late 2000s tech experiences went, an iPod unboxing ranked highly. Perhaps you can still get a similar buzz from opening other Apple or non-Apple products, but the formal death of the iPod Classic when it was discontinued in 2014 marked the end of a generational moment. Edgar Wright's new film Baby Driver knows it, using nostalgia for the once-ubiquitous white earbud experience as its centrepiece. Baby, played by Angel Ensort, is an iPod collector obsessed with the click wheel. He's using one in almost every scene.
I'll keep this spoiler free, but what's fun about Baby Driver is that it succeeds in capturing an experience that almost everybody has had, yet nobody talks about—that of listening to music in public with your headphones in, and feeling like you're in a movie.
Not just any movie, either. A perfectly soundtracked movie about your own life. Which is, despite what everyone else thinks, infinitely interesting. After much consideration you've picked the appropriate song for your feelings and you're sitting on a bus and yeah, you've got those shiny white earbuds in. You're probably imagining that these are the opening credits. You're gazing out the window, a faraway look on your face. You look cool and you feel cool too. There's every chance—and I say this with love, because I've been there—that you're actually an insufferably pretentious asshole. But who cares?
It was the iPod that made all this possible. Every single moment of every single day could have its own specific soundtrack. You weren't fast forwarding through a cassette tape or skipping between tracks on a CD. No—this was pocketable access to an unprecedentedly huge portable music library, theoretically almost infinite but actually highly personalised and concise. The contents of your iPod said everything about you, your tastes, your knowledge—impeccably catalogued from ABBA to, I don't know, the Zutons
It all sounds so basic now. Streaming, with its easy and instant access to any and every song ever written, is ostensibly a music lover's dream. But gone are the curatorial powers of old. The personalisation is all lost. The iPod was a bridge between mechanical and digital—it provided a condensed, on-the-go version of flicking through the records on someone's shelf.
With Spotify or Tidal or Apple Music, you're not scrolling through your own selection of music or anyone else's. You're just typing song titles into search bars. Or perhaps giving up and allowing the algorithm to work out your tastes for you—it's getting better and better at that, after all. Suddenly, loving music comes easily. Lazily.
There was nothing lazy about owning an iPod. Maintaining your library required keeping up with the times. Most of the music in your iTunes would be torrented, stocked with lists like the "The Pitchfork 500" or "Blalock's Indie Rock Playlist," as well as the entire 6GB discographies of whatever bands you considered influential or essential. There was the occasional iTunes Store purchase, courtesy of a relative's well-meaning gift card.
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Plus all the CDs that you'd carefully loaded into iTunes, fingers crossed that the track names would be detected automatically. More likely though, if it was an obscure album or custom mix, you'd have to manually enter the information of each track with painstaking care so that your iPod would organise the songs properly. And still there would always be a bunch of those damn "Unknown Tracks" messing up the system.
Letting someone scroll through your iPod was the ultimate act of vulnerability. You had to have total confidence in your library. The goal was simple—for your iPod to be so jam packed with tunes that it took at least 10 minutes and infinite finger treks around the click wheel to get to the end. The larger your music collection, the smaller the little scroll bar on the right hand side of the screen.
Sharing could be fun, though. You'd be at a house party and everyone's iPods would be stacked up next to the aux cord. Silently competitive. When the music got stale you'd go over to change it and sneak a scroll—savouring the soft click-click of the wheel as it turned—through the iPod of the person you had a crush on, to see if their tastes matched yours. It was all very Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Very Michael Cera.
iPods weren't perfectly designed, but they were close. Like Nokia 3310s—those another much-mourned devices of the 2000s—they were brick-like and reliable. You could safely chuck an iPod Classic (although not a Nano. Fuck the Nano) in your backpack and expect it to emerge hours later unscathed. Except for the frustratingly scratched silver mirror on the back—literally touch it once and it was tarnished forever. But that roughness was kind of cool too, in its own way.
There will never be another iPod. Even if you want to listen to mp3s on your iPhone, you're out of luck—32GB pales in comparison to the 168GB capacity everyone once enjoyed.While still on the market, it crushed competitors like the Zune and the Creative with ease. When it left, with a whimper more than a bang, there was nothing to fill the void. An iPod Classic still fetches plenty of money on eBay from people desperate to replace their battery-ailing devices from 2009.
In our collective cultural memory though, iPod lives forever. Every time you hear a U2 song, think back to a brief decade in which music consumption was designed in favour of the discerning music fan. Someone with definite opinions about Belle and Sebastian. Put your headphones in, adopt a faraway gaze, and be the starring asshole in your own movie.
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