Farewell, iPod. You will always spin the clickable wheel in our hearts. Apple has officially killed off the once-beloved MP3 player; the US Apple Store finally sold the last iPod Touch on May 12. It’s the end of an era, because the iPod was more than just a portable jukebox. It was a way of life. He revolutionized the art of musical fandom. He created the future of random gaming that we all live in. The latest non-streaming musical gadget. The last one that didn’t require you to seek permission from a company to listen to your own music collection. The latest designed for you to be alone with the sound. The best listening device in the history of human ears.
The lonely death of the iPod may seem overdue. Just last week, Techradar published an article with the headline “You Probably Didn’t Realize It, But Apple Still Sells iPods.”
But I’m a die-hard fan of the iPod Classic, which they stopped making in 2014, although refurbished ones are easy to find online. My Folklovermore playlist contains “Right Where You Left Me” six times, because in a perfect world, this song would be on every Taylor Swift album at least twice. What if my Classic is technically obsolete? Trends change, rumors fly in new skies, but I never leave home without an iPod. If Apple wants to take it down, they’ll have to take it out of my cold, dead hands. (Which probably got so cold and dead because of the Click Wheel.)
People talk about this device in terms of how it started the era of digital music, or even how it paved the way for the smartphone. But in retrospect, it now feels like the last format designed for old-school pre-streaming trends, where the music is something you “have”, rather than something you rent.
While listening to the iPod, you are off the grid. You are not tracked, measured, counted, rated, researched, data mined, or researched. It’s nobody’s business, just you and the music. It keeps track of the number of plays, but it’s just for your personal amusement, it doesn’t judge you.
When the iPod arrived in 2001, it sounded too good to be true, promising “a thousand songs in your pocket”. Before that, if you took music on the go, you carried a Walkman, carrying maybe a spare cassette or two. But an iPod blew those limits. You could walk up and down a mountain listening to nothing but live Velvet Underground bootlegs. (My iPod has 9 hours of “Sister Ray” alone.) Or go from New Orleans hip-hop to opera to soukous to dub. The iPod zapped all boundaries of genre or era, creating a new breed of omnivorous pop. It was a cross-cultural, cross-generational smash, a Sexy Sadie that came to get everyone excited, opening minds to the raptures of random game headspace. There was a 2006 book on the iPod with an aptly titled: the perfect thing.
Most fans would say the iPod era really ended with the Classic – it’s the “Perfect Thing” version. The Touch had Wi-Fi, but that just made it an inferior imitation of a phone, and the beauty of the iPod was total immersion. You couldn’t check your emails while listening to or watching TV. You couldn’t scroll through what your favorites did or said or wore today. Just their music. Hours, days and weeks of this glorious shit.
When Apple launched these shiny gadgets in 2001, it seemed obvious that even a digital song was worth owning. (Or steal.) You had Kazaa, Limewire, Gnutella, ZShare, eMusic – so many ways to keep your own private MP3 stash. You could listen to your System of a Down tracks because they were yours. You were not asked for a password. The only two-factor check you needed was “I cry” and “When angels deserve to die”.
You can always snag other MP3 players, of course, but there’s something about this one. It created whole new kinds of devotion for fans. Along with the iPod boom came the rise of emo, backpack rap and other romantic mass cult genres. For some reason, this made fans feel more personally connected to their music. But it was also easier than ever to share mixes with your friends. To paraphrase the most essential of iPod albums, he created islands where no island should go.
The iPod also made it easy to play in other musical worlds. At least once a year I spend a working day listening to La Monte Young’s Five Hours The well-tuned pianoan opus that I heard only on the iPod. It’s a theater of eternal music, fitting into my wheel just between Ladytron and Lana Del Rey.
The pinnacle was iTunes version 8.0: the culmination of MP3 culture. As Jeremy D. Larson wrote in Fork in 2018, “Never has my music been so organized and easy to access as in the years 2008 and 2009. If I had the ability to go back in time, I wouldn’t go warn Oppenheimer about the bomb or crush a butterfly just to see what happens, I would go back eight or nine years ago and stop myself from updating iTunes.
JThe next iTunes after that had search functions and a nightmarish interface. There was also – wait – that fucking U2 album? Again? Sweet dancing mother of Judas, didn’t you take that thing away years ago? In classic Apple fashion, the Cupertino gang worked hard to break backwards compatibility, requiring upgrades for the usual mandatory “features and security settings.” (What does “security” even mean on an iPod? Will it keep you from hearing “Helena” during the full moon of locust season? Will it warn you to take a deep breath with every Bright Eyes ballad?)
I love streaming playlists, but it’s a different experience because there’s no pretense that they’re fan-owned. Last fall, Spotify quietly removed a feature that allows playlists to do crucial work: the end. Once your mix reaches the last song, autoplay takes over and continues indefinitely, unless you bother to turn it off. (I noticed for the first time that my trusty “falling asleep in hotel rooms” mix kept waking me up, because it wouldn’t shut up.) In other words, a playlist no longer chooses your own hour of music – it stalls for an hour until the algorithm takes over. It reminds us how evanescent streaming culture is. You’re allowed to eavesdrop via the reluctant consent of the corporate lords, only because they haven’t found a more efficient way to charge you for it.
The spirit of the iPod lives on because it’s the idea that any piece of sound bric-a-brac, from any era or genre, can be yours just because you like it. The idea that your favorite song might be a reason to turn off the phone, not turn it back on. The idea that you can connect directly to your music, without going through any clouds except the ones Joni sang about. The idea that music belongs to the crazy people who live for it, and that nothing else matters. In a way, that’s how the iPod will live on. It gave us a musical world where we can all turn into iPods.