To all the iPods I've loved before
Miracles don't last long these days
I didn’t think I could feel nostalgia for something that wasn’t even created until the 21st century. But then Apple announced they were discontinuing the iPod.
Nostalgia, like everything else, happens faster these days.
Apple sold roughly 450 million iPods. My wife and I, between us, owned roughly 50 million of those. We traded in some for others, and the rest ended up scattered in our many stashes of misfit electronics and office supplies and such. After the announcement the other day, I went through a junk drawer, lifted a baggie of push pins, and found three old iPods underneath.
One was the first iPod we ever bought, an iPod Shuffle from back in 2005. It’s the size of a pack of gum, so small it doesn’t even have a screen. It came with a built-in lanyard that always got tangled with the headphone cord whenever I was on the treadmill at the gym.
There was a green Nano from a couple of years later. This one not only had a screen, you could play video on it. I remember watching something on that little screen, the size of a saltine, and thinking: What a dumb idea. Apple should just stick with what they know.
This is one of the many reasons I am not a billionaire.
The third iPod I found was the best. In fact, it’s one of my favorite objects I’ve ever owned. When you hooked up your iPod to a computer, you could give it a name. I always gave them boring names like “tommy’s nano #2.” But this one I called MEGAPOD.
It’s an iPod Classic from 2008. By that time I had what I thought was a pretty big music collection—roughly 500 CDs, maybe 6,000 or 7,000 songs in all. The MEGAPOD had room for 30,000 songs. Nature abhors a vacuum and I abhorred empty space on the MEGAPOD. I spent hour after hour uploading CDs to my laptop, then transferring the files to the device. I added thousands more songs that I bought on iTunes. I could listen to everything R.E.M. ever recorded plus a couple of bootlegs. I could put on a Prince mix that got me all the way home on a trip from Alabama. I could let Los Lobos take me up a mountain road, or have the Ohio Players help me survive I-95.
Or I could put that thing on shuffle and let it make me a cosmic playlist of all the music I loved. I could have driven to the moon and not heard the same song twice. Do not do the math on that. Just roll with it.
It was around then that I started to notice something. I still loved the music. But not quite the same way I used to.
A new album used to be an appointment. I’d put it on the turntable or pop it into the CD player, and then I’d sit down and listen. I’d have the liner notes out so I could follow the lyrics and see who played on what track. Maybe I’d read a review or two to see what other people thought. It was an immersive experience, and it lasted as long as the album lasted—or even longer if I loved it so much I played it again.
That sounds so old-fashioned now, like putting on a suit to go to a baseball game.
The iPod meant you never had to listen to one record at a time anymore. It was built for skipping from one song to another. It was also built for moving around—for listening to music while you’re doing something else. Then smartphones came along, and they were iPods plus a phone and a camera and the entire Internet in your pocket. It got harder to pay attention to a song when you could do so much else at the same time. And then streaming and YouTube came along, and you didn’t have to buy records anymore, just turn on the firehose to hear basically every song that has ever been recorded.
All that leads to what some psychologists call the tyranny of choice. When you have nearly infinite options, it’s hard to enjoy anything because there’s always the chance something else would have been better. This is why Netflix has 17,000 titles and people still say there’s nothing to watch.
The iPod was a miracle for music lovers. But even miracles come with fine print.
People have bought vinyl in increasing numbers for years now, and I think this is part of the reason why. Buying a record forces you to make a choice and live with it for a while. As the great Ron Swanson once said, never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.
Sometimes I think the people who thrive most in this multitasking world are the people who stop long enough to do one thing at a time.
The iPod promised us we could listen to everything, but even that turned out not to be enough.
I still stream music, but I also buy records, and I’m that old dude who still buys CDs. It feels good to whole-ass something.
Although now that I’ve found the MEGAPOD, I might have to fire it up for the next road trip. All I need is the charger. I’m pretty sure it’s in one of these junk drawers.
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