I can’t say that the iPod was the single most important piece of technology in my lifetime. It’s not true. Not even for me, personally. High speed Internet, increasingly tiny computer chips, the smartphone, Twitter, the CPAP machine — all of these have more hold over my daily life than the iPod did, for longer than I ever had an iPod.
I don’t know that I’ve ever possessed a piece of electronics that provided me quite as much joy without also opening me up to misery, as the iPod.
My beloved 3rd Generation iPod, 2004 (Yes, I knitted that case. Obviously!!)
I got my first iPod in high school, after a pre-adolescence defined by lugging my (beautiful, cherry red) Sony Discman and huge booklet of CDs around with me in my backpack wherever I went. With the advent of P2P file sharing software and the ability to burn CDs, my already full CD pouch began to overflow, with slots filled double and triple, trying to lug everything I liked with me wherever I went.
The iPod changed not only the load I carried on my shoulders every day, but the scope of what my horizons could be. Without the constraints of physical space or the cost of CDs, I was free to explore any kind of music that seemed potentially interesting or worth knowing about.
In those days, iTunes was just a computer program for organizing and listening to music. There was no iTunes Store, no authenticating whether or not you legally owned the music you had on there. I downloaded songs illegally, or bought used CDs, imported them to iTunes, and then put them on my iPod. Then, I went to friends’ houses after school and traded music with them.
Adolescence is a moment in personal development where your entire worldview is already being shaken up and expanded, but with the added benefit of a little machine that let me not only listen to music wherever I went, but to share and exchange music with whoever had a computer? I was living my life as an expanding brain meme.
In the mid-2000s, technology accidentally democratized being a hipster. With the beginning of music blogs, you didn’t have to hunt down and buy music magazines anymore. While broadband Internet access and fast computers weren’t as widely used as they are today, they were sharply on the incline, making it a paradise for forums, torrenting, and P2P music downloading. Soulseek launched in 2001, providing a much needed alternative to the other P2P clients of the era. At the time, an iPod cost about as much as an Xbox, which is to say: expensive for a teenager without a job, but solidly in the range of a piece of consumer electronics that I could reasonably request as a really nice birthday present.
A device designed specifically for solo use lended itself weirdly well to collective enjoyment, 2006
Between the iPod, the fast Internet, my friends, and Soulseek, I had a pocket sized encyclopedia of everything that had ever been cool, from Skip James to Serge Gainsbourg, Kraftwerk to Kanye — with no need for haggling with record collectors or trying to get rare imports. And everyone who came into contact with me, who had class with me, who sat next to me on the bus on a field trip or came over to my house to work on a group project, had access to the same things.
Apple’s announcement that the iPod is no more made me nostalgic about it, but my specific experience of the iPod died a long time ago. Every change to iTunes since the launch of the iTunes Store made the program less and less usable as a way to organize a music library acquired in any way other than buying music from the iTunes Store. Smartphones made carrying around a separate device just for music feel obsolete, and P2P was no longer able to rival the convenience of things like YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify. On top of all that, I grew up. Once I’d dropped out of college, I no longer found myself in big groups of new people eager to trade music. My last memory of using my iPod in a communal setting was in 2010, when a coworker used it to play the entire Pavement discography on the sales floor on a Saturday. We weren’t allowed to bring our own music after that.
It was a moment that existed in spite of the intended use of the iPod, and it really couldn’t continue indefinitely. No one who made that thing wanted me to use it to listen to my favorite pirated Peel Sessions during school assemblies about meth, but it was magical while it lasted.