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The iPod's Moment in History

Even though it is only the latest stage in a much longer history of mobile audio, Apple has done such a thorough job of colonizing consumers' minds that many of them have now come to see that history in the company's terms.
 
 
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The fall of 2001 was surely one of the worst times to launch a new "lifestyle" product in the United States since World War II. Still reeling from the shock of seeing their nation's defenses breached by foreign invaders for the first time since the War of 1812, consumers had sharply curtailed spending on luxury goods. The stock market was doing poorly. And then, just when it seemed like the country's mood was beginning to stabilize, the discovery of anthrax in the nation's postal system rekindled the fear of indiscriminate terrorism. It was under these difficult circumstances that Apple CEO Steve Jobs walked on stage on October 23 -- the same day the Patriot Act was introduced on the floor of the House -- to debut a device that could either help revive the Apple brand's mystique or hasten its slide into irrelevance. But that didn't dissuade Jobs.

"Music's a part of everyone's life," he stated, "and because it's a part of everyone's life, it's a very large target market all around the world. It knows no boundaries." As Jobs went on to size up the market for digital music players and then announce the introduction of the iPod, these words continued to resonate, underscoring the ambitiousness of the company's strategy. "Everyone" is not a niche market. Five years later, Apple still has a long way to go before reaching that lofty goal. But the iPod has also turned out to be a bigger success than most people ever imagined. And it's become a part of modern society, affecting the lives of even those who don't actually own one.

Although the car radios that debuted in the early years of the Depression paved the way for all future efforts to take sound on the road; although the Sony Walkman cassette player, released in 1979, seemed like as big a deal in its day as the iPod does now; and although portable digital music players first appeared on the market back in 1998, the iPod's significance should not be underestimated. Because, even though it is only the latest stage in a much longer history of mobile audio, Apple has done such a thorough job of colonizing consumers' minds that many of them have now come to see that history in the company's terms. What the iPod makes possible stands in for what portability itself makes possible. That is why it has made the leap from newcomer to icon with astonishing brevity and is now close to attaining the lexical status of "Xerox" and "Kleenex."

It is impossible to make sense of the contemporary culture industry without putting the iPod center stage. Even those music lovers who have no interest in using one, either because they are unsatisfied with its limited fidelity or because they aren't interested in mobility, must confront the fact that the choices available to them are constrained by the iPod's influence on the market. Indeed, the very existence of traditional audiophiles is threatened, since the criteria they use for rating both equipment and recording are no longer a high priority for most listeners. Frequency response, the accuracy of microphones, the virtuosity of musicians -- the bread and butter of "serious" music magazines from the late 1940s until the popularization of the MP3 format -- have become secondary or tertiary considerations in a context where the most important thing is not how good the music sounds, but how readily it is available to you.

Significantly, when Jobs introduced the iPod back in 2001, he went out of his way to make it clear that Apple was appealing to the casual listener. "The biggest thing about iPod is that it holds 1,000 songs," he noted. "Now this is a quantum leap, because for most people it's their entire music library." Since that first iPod only held five gigabytes of music, barely more than today's much smaller iPod Nano, the presumption that the device could hold everything in a person's music library clearly overlapped with Jobs's earlier comment that, "music is a part of everyone's life." When you're marketing to everyone, you're interested in what works for "most people" instead of what works best for the people who care most.

This brings us back to the apparent ill-timing of the product's debut. As Apple's recent financial fortunes make clear, the fall of 2001 may actually have been the best time to introduce this particular "lifestyle" product. The news stories that were surely a distraction for Jobs's audience that day contributed to a mood that made the iPod seem like the perfect technology for the moment. Because, as his presentation made clear, what the iPod's combination of speed and size was really intended to make possible was the transformation of music into shelter. The prospect of bringing your whole music library with you is only attractive if circumstances prevent you from hearing it at home.

The shifting economic conditions of our high-tech era had already been undermining the distinction between work and home for years before the iPod debuted. Dot-commers in cities like San Francisco could be seen working on projects in the semi-public space of cafés at all hours of the day and night. And service workers at the bottom end of the pay scale spent so much time commuting from one temporary job to another that their commute often doubled as their leisure time. What the post-9/11 era added to the picture for the average American was the prospect of their homes literally coming under attack.

By building on a longstanding belief that music is tightly bound to identity -- you are the music you hear -- Apple was able to imbue the iPod with the aura of home itself. If the rumbling bass of an SUV blasting hip-hop breaks down the invisible walls that divvy up our personal space in the public sphere, the iPod does exactly the opposite, building new barriers between us. Music may "know no boundaries," but the purpose of the iPod is to protect them. As anyone who has spent some time sitting in a Star-bucks can tell you, the customers who work there use iPods to minimize the possibility for social interaction.

Indeed, this is surely the most disturbing aspect of the iPod's success and the larger phenomenon of portable living it represents. In her new book Pretend We're Dead, Annalee Newitz, a columnist for Wired magazine and AlterNet, writes about how people can be absorbed by the mass media they adore. Commenting for this piece on the iPod, she notes that, "There's something visually and socially creepy about people plugged into devices that are taking over one of their senses. It's as if they've been possessed by technology and their identities transformed into something monstrous."

Although a number of factors contribute to this perception, it's the fact that people are listening to these devices in public that inspires such a reaction. Indeed, it may be the iPod's role in constructing the illusion of a home away from home that is the most monstrous thing of all. As cultural critics are fond of pointing out, the German title of Sigmund Freud's famous essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, translates literally as "the un-home-like." That's an apt description of the eerie feeling we get watching people who sit for hours staring blankly into space, ears plugged with music of their choosing, looking like they've lost the passage back to the place they were before. They are out in public, to be sure, but primarily to act out their desire for privacy. Maybe what these listeners want is to be seen wanting both company and solitude.

It's a paradoxical wish, but one that captures the peculiar anxieties of the postmodern era in their most acute post-9/11 form. In the end, the iPod is the ideal product for the era of homeland insecurity. You can't take it all with you, but at least you can take your music. It may not be possible to return home to retrieve the rest of your belongings. But at least you will have something of yourself to bring along for the trip. And, if you turn the volume up loud enough, it will even drown out the sirens. The only problem is that, if too many people do the same thing, the fire engines may not be able to reach their destination in time. That would be an ironic end to our postmodern odyssey.

Charlie Bertsch is Tikkun's music editor and assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona. A co-editor of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life , Bertsch is currently putting the final touches on a book about punk.