Features | Articles

The Earbud and The Clickwheel: How Apple's iPod Changed Your Life

By Clayton Purdom | 18 December 2006

Year-end articles typically look over the previous twelve months and issue some sweeping indictment, using words like “good” or “bad,” or fixing a supercilious tag on the date, summarizing “The Year Indie Got Big,” or “The Year of the Rapper,” or “Sufjan Stevens.” But I’m a big picture guy; I’m not rewinding to January 2006. I’m kicking your ass right back to 2000.

I was a sophomore in high school; plump, stately, and loathsome. My favorite bands were Weezer, Radiohead, and the Beastie Boys, in that order. I had a dial-up internet connection that took twenty minutes to stream fifteen seconds of swimwear video, but boy did I try. Email and AIM were glistening oddities to me, chances to vent my burgeoning fury and to chat with pretty girls. But most importantly, the dial-up modem offered a chance to snag those sweet, confusing mp3s. Words like “file-sharing” and “Napster” had begun to enter the cultural lexicon, and it was widely believed that mp3s would change everything (important stare). Music, the magazines I read declared, would never be listened to the same way again. Sgt. Pepper (1967) wouldn’t exist anymore! MTV would be hosted by robots! The mp3 wasn’t a format change like a VCR — it was a fucking revolution!

Gutenberg, get the fuck out! The musicians, their chins covered in dribble after being spoonfed this hysteria, responded in various ludicrous manners. Lars Ulrich threw his famous hissyfit, alienating a legion of fans in the process, and Dr. Dre proclaimed that, despite his hard work, Napster was taking the food out of his kid’s mouths — y’know, right before he began working really hard at sucking. Radiohead reacted differently, leaking Kid A (2000) months before its release; the increased gestation period gave the album more time to sink in for critics and fans, and when those critics orgasmed collectively those fans bought enough copies to debut the record at #1. Hypnotized by a clamoring SPIN review, I bought it on opening day. The record industry blamed its increasingly poor sales on Napster, saying file-sharing was our guilty consciences’ term for outright theft. In 2002, label-sympathizing judges issued a series of injunctions that ultimately destroyed Napster, but services like Morpheus, KaZaa, and LimeWire carried on its legacy. Even if Napster shut down, the digital revolution refused to die. The almighty mp3 would continue to change everything!

But what happened next shocked everyone: fuck-all. Album sales continued their downward slump, major labels released shitty albums in the same shitty fashion, underground acts continued to get gobbled up by the massive maw of corporate America. In short, “music” — as a commercial and artistic entity — remained unchanged. Despite the litany of rabblerousing surrounding Napster’s birth, the mp3 had failed to change everything (important stare). In fact, mp3s hadn’t changed anything. I burnt crushes CDs instead of dubbing mixtapes, okay, but what of that beyond newfound convenience? It was a minor, though much-heralded, format shift.

Napster declared bankruptcy in September 2002. A month later, Apple announced its entry into the portable mp3 player market. Despite soaking $400 a pop, the iPod sold 381,000 units in its first year, a tidy success for an ailing company. But then something — one of those confluences of culture, commerce and serendipity — just happened, and around the iPod built the perfect storm. The device became, quickly and resolutely, iconic. It was more than a gadget; it was a necessity, like a computer or a car or fucking running water. People who never would’ve shelled out a few hundred bills for a piece of music equipment began to lust after Apple’s device, ostensibly because it was “cool.” But unlike, say, Tickle Me Elmo or the lava lamp, the iPod’s appeal transcended any particular demographic, making its “hip” factor spread more like a pandemic than an outbreak. In 2003, Apple sold 939,000 units, about thrice the sales of the previous year. The next year found a five-fold increase, with 4.4 million iPods moved. These exponential growth trends continued: in the first three months alone of 2006, over 14 million iPods found owners; the remaining nine months of 2006 tripled that figure.

Look at those numbers again, and think about what the arc of its upward swing represents. It’s likely that the figures find tangible analogs in your daily life. If you’re reading this, you’re an astute music fan with, obviously, fantastic fucking taste and a ready internet connection. There is, then, a 97.3% chance that you own an iPod, and a 52% chance that you’re listening to it right now. You know people, a few stragglers maybe, who are getting iPods during this holiday season. Your dad might have one; maybe a grandparent, too. You see people dozing off on the subway while listening to one, or waiting for class to start after a long weekend. Roadtrips are met with a volley of iPods in search of one iTrip. The little fuckers are, pretty literally, everywhere. They’ve inundated Western culture, and if trends continue, living above the poverty line will mean owning an iPod. Napster nudged the proverbial ball, but the iPod was the natural catalyst that really, finally did — yes — change everything. It’s the vehicle through which the digital revolution belatedly occurred. The best proof of this is how quickly and naturally they spread, how iPod purchases were such easy, obvious exchanges. It’s something we just kinda do these days, barely even a rite of passage. Losing my virginity was certainly more trouble, but realistically, buying an iPod made more of an impact.

Okay, giggle. I love my iPod, which I named Wallace Stegner after author Wallace Stegner. But the massive cultural assimilation of the iPod is what really makes me giddy. The iPod is literally forcing the unwashed masses, by its very nature, to listen to music in an engaged, critical manner. The very features that made the iPod so iconographically appealing — that is, the earbuds and the clickwheel — are the same that make it so culturally mobilizing. Listening to music through headphones is an altogether different and more personal experience than listening to music at a party or in a car; it’s engagement on a much deeper, more conscious level. And while the earbuds generally kinda suck, people keep using them because they make a loud statement: “I, too, am listening to an Apple iPod!” At first it was a status symbol – “I can afford an Apple iPod” — but at this point it’s one of simple group identity. The commercials made the white cords cool, which bolstered sales. But, Pete Townshend’s hearing be damned, if forcing half the planet to listen to music on headphones makes them pay attention to nuance, lyricism, and structure, this can only be a good thing.

So the earbuds make people pay attention, but the clickwheel forces them to analyze, to assimilate what they hear. The process of selecting music from an ocean of options is an exercise in critical analysis (as opposed to the radio), an intellectual engagement in the appropriateness of a given song or album. Thus mouthbreathers need to decide between Jack Johnson or John Mayer, My Chemical Romance or From Autumn to Ashes, and they’re forced to gauge its subtle impact on their current, motile worldview. Because it’s so small — I’ve often noted that someone could insert an iPod Nano into my anus and I’d be none the wiser, and the newest Shuffle could be ingested without problem — people take their iPods with them everywhere, and because it’s “cool,” they want to be seen listening to them everywhere. This increases the sheer quantity of music being listened to: if one carries one’s iPod everywhere, one must carry music for a variety of mental situations. People are listening to music exhaustively, and a willingness to try new genres (or at least artists) ought to arise out of boredom, if nothing else. This is where iTunes comes in, and, hopefully, this is where sites like the Glow help nudge people toward that good shit.

Inelastic tastes will bend out of necessity, so that kids that casually dig Avril Lavigne may find their way back to, say, Exile in Guyville (1993), or Incubus fans might grope toward Check Your Head (1993). The earbud and the clickwheel define iPodding, and together they change music listening from a passive experience to an active one, like the difference between watching a movie on TV and watching it on opening night in a theater. With the addition of choice and the elimination of peripheral stimuli, the iPod has reenergized the way people listen to music. It represents not a conformist deadening of thought, but, instead, a blank slate upon which the owner can project his or her own intellectual growth.

Myself included. I bought an iPod in early 2005 — my early days with the Glow, a listless college junior — but 2006 was the year of the iPod for me: shuffling through various living situations, driving across the country a few times, fumbling through classes and jobs, the only constant in this heady, stupid year was Wallace Stegner. And so the two albums that defined 2006 for me, at least until the Clipse dropped Hell Hath No Fury on us, were the two most iPoddable records that came under my attention: Lupe Fiasco’s unheralded Food & Liquor and Keith Fullerton Whitman’s incandescent Lisbon. Unlike the Clipse’s record, Lupe’s debut traded in plush, soulful hip-hop and wittily engaging lyrics. It was, as Tom Breihan pointed out and I reiterated, an “iPod album,” in that the lyrics gradually revealed subtleties and cross-references and the beats maintained a dusty familiarity after months of listening. It’s an album that benefits from careful attention (earbuds), repeated spins (hipness), and overarching consistency (clickwheel); it may as well come bundled with the 80 gig model.

Lisbon‘s on another tip entirely. I can’t touch upon the quality of the album without drowning in it, so I’ll leave those waters untouched. Let it be said that Keith Fullerton Whitman’s 42-minute one-track work abjectly defies iPod listening, but in doing so is quintessentially iPoddian. It flouts the clickwheel: one either listens to Lisbon or one does not, but a half-assed sit-down with the record is pointless. Fast-forwarding shatters the effect created, ruining the entire sequence; best to start over in such an event. I shudder to think of listening to the album on anything but headphones. Sure, I’ve taken it into open air before, pushed it through speakers and let it fill the room, and it’s.well.glorious enough. But Lisbon, recorded during a rambling phase of Whitman’s life, when he relished the idea of creating a sustained but imperfect piece of music, needs to be lived with. The images of city streets that adorn the sleeve command that the music be taken toward the world, dragged into the streets, in gutters by awnings near leaves. Through orchards —

Whoa, see? I waded out neck deep there and didn’t even realize it. Still, it’s obvious that Lisbon, more than any other record of the iPod era (let’s say 2004-present), is a piece of music both enhanced by the device’s advantages (portability, close listening) and impervious to its drawbacks (clickwheel ADD). It’s music that, earbuds packed in and sound pushing through one’s face, enlivens — nay, spiritualizes — casual external events, and by external I mean anything going on in a place where you wouldn’t normally be listening to music. I mean the places where the iPod makes listening to music available in a way it hadn’t in a socially acceptable way before: the grocery store, the bank, the diner. This is the ideal music for almost any mental situation; it is sublime, furious, cathartic, serene, cold, and, at least according to Amir Nezar, erotic. Thus the Apple iPod defined 2006 for me, from Lupe and Whitman on through Grizzly Bear, Danielson, Sunset Rubdown, and Subtle. For Hero: For Fool isn’t much for car rides or parties, but hot damn is it easy to get lost in on headphones. I won’t blast Ships where others can hear that squeal, but a few dozen close, unembarrassed spins to myself revealed a generous depth and humanity.

That, at least, is how the iPod worked for me, and it’s how I see it energizing the listening habits of less musically-focused friends. It’s tempting to extrapolate this growth and apply the lesson to the larger musical landscape: to view the rise of the iPod as a cultural reaction to the homogeneity of Clear Channel radio domination. Every iTrip is a tiny pirate radio station, defying the monolithic forces that control the media and broadcasting whatever the hell its operator pleases, be it Breaking Benjamin or Lightning Bolt. In this way the iPod not only circumvents the corporate behemoth, allowing listeners to make choices for themselves through the clickwheel, but also nudges people to take action against pap by actually listening to their music through the earbuds. Even if someone’s still choosing to listen to Nickelback, at least they’re doing it on their own, without feeding Clear Channel Communications. And if they’re really, intently listening to Nickelback on that iTrip, aren’t they eventually going to get bored and find something more substantive — some Zuma (1975), some Electric Warrior (1971), even some fucking Sam’s Town (2006)?

Now, I realize that I might be painting myself into a corner, balking at Clear Channel’s media monopolization while championing Apple’s dominance of the portable mp3 player market. The primary difference is that Clear Channel is a company devoted to the eradication of open discourse (gobbling up stations with feckless frenzy), one wholly ignorant of the value of music. I mean, this is a company that circulated a list of songs not to be played following September 11 — a list including “What a Wonderful World” and “Imagine.” Clearly, these guys hate music, or, at the very least, view it as an enemy. Through their colossal megaphone, they deadened the breadth and artistry of readily available music, whereas Apple’s device is, by its very nature, designed to do the exact opposite. And if my enthusiastic endorsement of this gigantic corporate entity seems a bit conservative, a bit like a fascistic ode to Wal-Mart, then excuse my acceptance of the inevitable defeat of all the iPod’s competitors. Because if the Zune’s commercial failure helps one more kid make the jump from Jeezy to GZA, then I say: churn, cogs of industry, churn.