Still Alive!
Cover Image for iPod Classic

iPod Classic

Haley Patail

Though Tim Cook and Apple discontinued it almost ten years ago after a 13-year run, the iPod Classic lives on—in no small part lying forgotten and inert in boxes with Walkmen and Razrs, no doubt, but nevertheless. Mine, a 6th generation and the second I’ve owned, has lasted me nearly a decade and shows no signs of stopping. After she suffers a particularly bad drop and refuses to turn on for a few hours before forgiving me and relenting, I nervously scan Ebay for proof of backups. They’re out there. But outside of my immediate vicinity, the iPod holds a small place in the cultural mind. Aside from its spectacular and in retrospect delightfully simple commercials with their bright colors and white-silhouetted product—and a notable appearance in the sixth season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation in which noted luddite and libertarian Ron Swanson (played by Nick Offerman) declares an iPod Classic filled with all his records to be “AN EXCELLENT RECTANGLE”—the humble device hasn’t left much of a footprint in the culture. For all its faults, I have to heartily applaud Edgar Wright’s 2017 film Baby Driver as perhaps the only genuine piece of pro-iPod-Classic propaganda.

Stories of physical media’s refusal to die off in the face of capital-S Streaming entities– Spotify, the myriad Amazon properties, Netflix, etc.— tend to center on the poster children: books and vinyl. And there is definitely something heartening about the resilience of the record as a distinctly homebound form of listening. But though no new iPods are being made, the ones that do exist still uphold the endangered practice of music ownership.

In many ways the iPod Classic was the final step between the idea of old-school music ownership and the streaming era: it’s portable, holds a lot of music—mine has 160GB of memory—and allows you to shuffle it all, make playlists with it, and even generates playlists based on one song. But by today’s standards, its lack of outside influence and content renders it positively old-fashioned. When the iPod was first unveiled, Apple marketed it as “1000 songs in the palm of your hand.” The music-streaming entities would like to be thought of as every song in your hand—as long as your phone is charged and the servers are running. Of course not even Spotify has every song but the ideal consumer is meant to believe that it has everything worth listening to, otherwise why wouldn't it be made readily available to be shuffled in with everything else? These ideas of convenience and panoply are the Trojan horse through which these platforms deliver their pernicious and ravenous algorithms, inexorably driving their users toward bland consensus and endless, mindless consumption.

Even if we accept, for a moment, the false premise that Spotify has everything, why would we expect or want our own music ownership to mimic that experience? Why would we want any aspect of the physical media market to mimic it? In an otherwise harmless CBC News article by Natalie Stechyson about “resdicovering the value of DVDs,” we find DVD shop owner, Tom Ivison, making an interesting claim:

Standing at the store's front desk, which he calls the nucleus of the shop, Ivison says there's something else his shop offers that streaming doesn't: a human being.

"In a weird way, I'm the algorithm here at the store," he said.

"Using a streaming service, it's more data collection in terms of what someone may watch. I have to know my customers and have a sense of what they may want to watch or not want to watch. That's important."

Though I’m sure well-intentioned in a slightly condescending “see? this old thing is exactly like a newer thing!” kind of way, the conflation of “human being” and “algorithm” here is troubling. The idea that the purveyor of a store selling physical media “is the algorithm” of that establishment is of course utterly backwards. Knowing your niche in a community and tailoring your wares to the interests and proclivities of your customers is the purview of any successful business owner, and they can achieve it without invading the privacy of their clientele. Furthermore, it is the right of any media consumer to have their own particular tastes, and to move toward things that develop, challenge, and enrich those tastes as they see fit, perhaps with the help of another human being. The replacement of (potentially) helpful human suggestions and personal preference with algorithmic logic is somehow meant to better our consumption habits, in that it will exacerbate them for profit.

Experiencing music while moving through the world heightens both the music and the world. I don’t begrudge anyone their desire to augment their surroundings with a song, to heighten the mundane with a soundtrack. But I do begrudge the ease with which convenience mentality has insinuated itself into the listening experience, just as it has done with so many aspects of modern life.

Consider, if you will, the music library. In this case, the iTunes library, of which the iPod is the portable embodiment. Like all remaining bastions of physical media ownership, it is a site of mystery and intense particularity. (The “saved songs” section of Spotify may at best represent the latter, but of course is always being augmented by Discover Weekly playlist and other algorithmically generated suggestions.) Mine is full of untitled tracks, albums named after mixes made by my friends in middle school, songs that skip because the CDs I ripped them from were scratched from overuse. It holds playlists that follow abstract naming conventions incomprehensible to anyone other than me. And crucially, these peculiarities are utterly inaccessible to anyone else. They’re frankly no one else’s business but my own.

This spring, a gifted pair of wired, low-profile, and crucially not noise-canceling headphones allowed me to recenter my iPod as my primary listening method. That same week, I got laid off with no warning. Retroactively I feel foolish for thinking that the job was something I really had, could count on. Even that little mirage of ownership was so easily swept away by someone else’s hand like so much cobwebbing. I retreated into my playlists, cultivated over years; I reveled in my taste, the things I used to like and mostly still do. Used my headphones to excuse the chilly silence I extended to my boss, to whom I no longer wished to speak even inanely while I trudged through my final perfunctory weeks of employment, until the pressure on my ears gave me a headache. It was worth it. The metal band heats up in the rising fervor of desert summer, not even close to full throttle yet. I cherish the burning kiss on the back of my neck when I pull them down to let the world back in.

I can get worked up about owning my music, justifying my iPod to younger people who have only ever known Spotify. It's just so unlikely that I'll ever own much else. Why shouldn't I get a little maniacal about one of the few things I can actually call mine? An ever-shrinking number of unfathomably wealthy people own everything around us—the flimsily renovated, overpriced housing that proliferates in our car-ridden cities, all the trappings of some extinct idea of middle class American success and the factories where those trappings are made, the land on which this whole sham rests precariously, poisoned and suffocated and depleted inexorably by greed. The land which is not any of ours to own, and never has been. Like children dividing a living room with invisible boundaries, the entire colonialist experiment of America hovers over the good green earth, drawing lines through the air. If I will never be able to buy the arbitrary proof that I own the land under my own bed, if all my books and DVDs and clothes and silverware can and must be able to fit in the back of a moving truck at a moment’s notice, then I'll hold fast to my iPod. To the set of experiences, memories, sensations—truly and only mine—that live in the palm of my hand and come alive the spin of a thumb.


Art by Eric Hanson

Haley Patail is a writer, artist, and eldest sister from Michigan. She lives in Las Vegas.