The White Wonder

Has the iPod really sparked a revolution?


We live, we are told, at the dawn of the iPod age. Five years ago this week, Apple’s MP3 player was launched with the tag line “1,000 Songs in Your Pocket.” Since that time, the iPod has become a ubiquitous urban accessory, traveled with Dick Cheney to secret, undisclosed locations, and named a generation. The white wonder has spawned a hundred articles—some on its cultural import, some noting that there are special iPod gloves that increase sensitivity to the click wheel or that a young man in Colorado was struck by lightning while wearing one—and now the device has a semiofficial history: The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy. Here’s the rub: After reading Levy’s book, I’m not convinced that the iPod has changed anything at all.

Levy, a senior editor at Newsweek, is a prime example of the boomers who think the iPod is revolutionary. But really, they’re grateful, because it’s made them feel cool again. As the first generation to embrace rock, Levy’s cohort faced a musical conundrum as they aged: Do we graduate to classical music or keep listening to the Doors? Both choices have their downsides, but the iPod provided a third way out. Under the guise of converting CDs to MP3s, you could plausibly dig out your copy of Trust and discuss Elvis Costello around the office. The adult engaging in such behavior wasn’t doing something as juvenile as listening to the music of his salad days; rather, he or she (but mostly he) was getting hip to the white-ear-budded technological wave. From there, it was only a short step to listening to the Arcade Fire.

Teenagers and college students came to the iPod from a different angle. In 2001, Napster was still going strong, and any reasonably tech-savvy young person figured out that paying $16 for a CD was an archaic practice, like threshing wheat by hand. The iPod represented an excellent (if expensive) repository for all those songs floating around your hard drive. The real revolution had already occurred in the early ‘90s. That’s when a consortium of computer engineers developed the encoding standard known as Moving Pictures Expert Group 1, Layer 3, which rose to stardom as the MP3. Most of the tectonic music-industry shifts that cultural commentators ascribe to the iPod—the rise of the single, the downfall of the album—can be more precisely pinned to the digitization of music.

What about all those iPod-wearing people zoned out in trains, planes, and cafes? Surely they represent a new solipsistic turn in the culture, a million tiny bubbles. True, but the iPod people are not exactly new. The Perfect Thing, in its chapter on the history of the personal stereo, demonstrates how iPod culture is essentially a continuation of Walkman culture. The original Sony market research was amazingly prescient. They identified two types of Walkman users: those who sought “escape” and those who sought “enhancement.” Some people wanted to avoid contact with others, while another subset wanted to augment their everyday moods with a personal soundtrack—or do both at different times. That’s exactly what people use an iPod for, except a few have taken escape to the next level and claim that their iPod can read their minds.

The iPod seems like a revolution because there was a brief gap in the march of personal stereo products. As the sales of Walkmen and cassette tapes declined, Sony was ready and waiting with the Discman. But the early models were prone to skipping, and CDs were never as portable as cassettes. Also, you couldn’t comfortably fit a Discman in your pocket. So, for a few years, there was dip in the number of people running around with headphones on. In 2006, more than 50 million iPods are in circulation, and the media love fest is in full bloom. Still, the iPod does not match the star quality of the Walkman in its heyday. To take one cultural field: The Walkman served as a plot device in Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, The Goonies, and (insert your movie here). The Walkman was also first—the original king. Before Sony introduced Model TPS-L2 in 1979, the only person experiencing personal music was a German visionary strolling through the woods with his “stereobelt.”

The iPod has also benefited from a more crowded world. The academic literature surrounding personal stereos frequently references the 19th-century German sociologist Georg Simmel, who was one of the first to detail the acute horror of the urban commute:

Before the development of buses, railroads and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.

Europeans responded to the new reality by keeping silent and expecting the courtesy of not being spoken to. That strategy wasn’t always successful. They also started reading. Books, in effect, were the original iPods. In the 20th century, most of us commute to work in a car and have a zone of personal space that we can control. But for anyone on a bus or stuck in an airport, the iPod solves a Victorian problem.

Travel further down the iPod rabbit hole, and you’ll find professors like Markus Giesler, who talks of the iPod as making its users “technotranscendent” and “cyborg consumers” in a “hybrid entertainment matrix.” I’m willing to concede a lot to the iPod. People compose intricate playlists for morning runs, parties, and studying, something that a Walkman couldn’t do as well. The “shuffle” option can save you from a musical rut. Those boombox guys don’t seem to be around much anymore. The right song at the right moment can make you feel like a champion of the world. But we are all still sniffing the same old glue: Yanni, Bach, Pet Shop Boys, Sinatra, Iron Maiden, Young Jeezy. The iPod is not a paradigm shift; it’s simply music to our ears.