It was at approximately 3:30 in the morning, as I sat in my parents' basement loading my father's Hank Williams Jr.'s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 CD into my brand-new Dell MP3 player, that I realized my Christmas gift may in fact completely ruin my life.
It's basically a clone of Apple's iPod, which was far from being first on the market, but was the first MP3 player to officially go nuclear. For the layman, the Midwestern schlub, the casual music fan, the USA Today subscriber, Christmas 2003 marks the exact point at which iPod Nation stormed the Castle Grayskull gates and officially effected Rock Zeitgeist Regime Change.
The sure sign of iPod's dominion: copycats. Everyone knows it's not a movement until everyone and your grandma blatantly rip off the market leader's innovations. Take nü-metal, for example. Your grandma totally ruined that.
Behold: Every major music mag's December issue overflowed with ads for iPod rip-offs; a very brief whirlwind shopping tour yields fine products manufactured by Dell, Napster, RCA, Sony, Philips, Rio, TDK, and the innovatively named iRiver and iRock. Virtually every newspaper and magazine in existence dutifully ran compare-and-contrast pieces on the damn things for curious Christmas-shopping (and previously-nü-metal-destroying) grandmas. And the phrase "What the kids these days will be downloading on their iPods" has officially entered the quasi-hipster lexicon of overused terms that legally justify repeated blows to the face. Shake it like a Polaroid picture!
The competitive ad blitz notwithstanding, only Apple overlord Steve Jobs scored the gushing Rolling Stone interview, in which he got to crow -- alongside a photo op with an iPod-wielding Sheryl Crow -- about Apple's feat of selling nearly 1.5 million iPods and peddling twenty million downloads on iTunes, its heavily hyped dollar-per-song service that will single-handedly convince people to stop stealing music -- you heartless criminal terrorist bastards -- maybe.
But though the illegal downloading racket is a dependable journalistic horse, let us momentarily dismount. Jobs now has unironic titles like "savior of the desperately fucked-up music industry" attached to his name, but his genius moment may reside in the way -- just like the iMac and other Apple products before it -- he has made the iPod so goddamn cool.
Ice-cold, as Andre 3000 would say.
Consider the Utopian ideal presented by the iPod and all its disciples: your own badass self, hilariously uncomfortable "ear bud" headphones jammed into your head, with five thousand of your favorite songs dumped into a cigarette-pack-sized computer set on "shuffle" so you can veer erratically from King Tubby to King's X to King Missile's "Detachable Penis" as you pick up the dry cleaning or stagger around Lake Merritt. Radio has failed you. Portable CD players limited you. But now you're an all-powerful DJ, with the single most dangerous item in your home -- your CD collection -- in the palm of your hand.
You heard me.
As a violent expression of your cultural identity, an iPod is every bit as dangerous a concealed weapon as a Glock. The old High Fidelity mantra that "You are what you like" still holds true, and nothing declares what you like more forcefully than your CD collection. Most people collect CDs solely to arrange them -- alphabetically, of course -- in a comically oversized CD rack and just stare at 'em, arms outstretched, beaming. This Is Who I Am, the divine accumulation of my artistic genius and fabulous eclecticism. And in the event of an earthquake, Who I Am can tip over and literally crush me.
And now you can stuff Who I Am down your pants if you suspect you're about to be mugged.
For those of us who don't own swords or firearms, CD collections serve as the classic extension-of-ego trophy: cultural superiority through pure quantity, pure volume. You don't collect wildly eclectic CDs because you enjoy wildly eclectic music; you collect wildly eclectic CDs because you want people to think you enjoy wildly eclectic music. The iPods and their ilk have simply made this self-aggrandizing process simple and portable.
Wired magazine recently noted the "playlisting" phenomenon on college campuses, wherein students list their entire iPod contents online, allowing them to choose (or, more likely, reject) romantic prospects based entirely on the artists contained therein. Chumps with too much Candlebox and not enough Can are now more easily detected and kicked to the curb.
But it's all a guise, a facade -- iPods have only made it easier to hide who you really are. Fact: Eighty percent of your CD collection hardly ever gets played. Most folks claim wildly sprawling tastes, but secretly rocket their Kias across the Bay Bridge blasting the same eight CDs in continual rotation. We like repetition. We like familiarity. There is nothing wrong with this. Stop lying to yourself, and using the contents of your iPod to lie to others. Admit the truth.
I'll start: For about two weeks, the only song I'd play in my car was "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne.
Jesus Christ, that was embarrassing. Never mind.
MP3 players are deadly simply in the way they appeal to the narcissistic record-collector geek in all of us, rendering us drooling, bag-eyed, obsessive-compulsive fools who painstakingly type in album after album and track name after track name just so everything's absolutely perfect. I personally am infuriated by my Dell's refusal to accept Pop as a U2 album -- despite loading several of my mother's U2 records into the damn thing, it insists on listing Pop separately, as some sort of parallel-universe U2, perhaps coyly trying to banish into solitary confinement the band's lemon-riding irony-overload electronica phase.
Smart computers, these. Perhaps too smart. Perhaps lethal in the way they slyly appeal to our look-how-varied-my-tastes-are vanity. Enjoy your iPods and iPod clones, kids: a fantastic invention, truly life-altering. But make sure you're carrying them around, and not the other way around. Or else you might find yourself listening to Hank Williams Jr.'s "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound" for what you suddenly realize is no reason, no goddamn reason at all.
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