Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pod People

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 29, 2005:
“Dear Mark,” I wrote to my son, recently packed off to Bowdoin College in Maine, “I’ve been thinking about the new iPod nano as a Christmas gift for you. The technology is dazzling (here I referred him to David Pogue’s glowing review in the New York Times), but still the phenomenon worries me. While the nano would be fine for listening to music while you’re in your dorm room, so as not to disturb your mates, headphones accomplish the same end. And I am concerned that so many young people walk around listening to music of their own prior selection, creating a pre-packaged though personalized environment that excludes all possibility of calm, simple reflection and sensory and cognitive receptivity. How does inspiration enter when the door is closed and a ‘Keep Out’ sign is posted?

“What do you think? Am I missing something? Or am I hopelessly twentieth-century?”

Before he replied I allowed my mind to descend into a whirlpool of rumination and rant into which I now invite you. Step into my Jacuzzi of jeremiad, folks. This is the future of civilization we’re talking about.

Marshall McLuhan promised us a global village interconnected by electronic media. But he also stated, famously, that “the medium is the message.” And boy, does the iPod ever send a passel of messages while ostensibly providing musical enjoyment for only its user/listener/wearer. The fact that we can’t even be certain what we should call the iPod sherpa is illustrative. The iPod is about technology, it is about fashion, and it is about individual character, social class, community values, and the perils of conformity. It is a class mark, a tattoo, a sign of have status among have-nots, even though the poor may, in our Sam’s Club Society, buy Godiva or Calvin or any damn thing they please, though it won’t get them past the gate of inherited wealth and its presumption of Good Taste.

Oh yeah, and the iPod plays music too.

For those who have been asleep this century, the iPod is manufactured by Apple, the company that 20 years ago revolutionized desktop computing with the Macintosh. As its computers declined in market share and its stock price dipped toward the vanishing point, Apple reinvented itself by coming up with an accessory product that has become an international star; thanks to the iPod, the company’s computers now form a secondary line of business and Apple stock is trading at robust levels. The market response to Apple’s staggering revenue increase is predictably, in some measure, “yes, but let’s see you do it again — you can’t sustain an explosive rate of growth based on a single product” … to which Apple has responded with the nano, which threatens to repeal the earnings law of gravity.

The iPod is a sleek, compact, lightweight successor to the SONY Discman. Both may be said to belong to a category in which many others claim to play — including Rio and Philips and a few cellphone companies like Motorola — which is known as Digital Audio Players, or DAPs, and all play music compressed in the MP3 format. But iPod owns this category, and to call any other player the second most popular is to work a powerful deception.

Do you recall reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World back in high school? Remember soma, that opiate of the masses that, like the opiate of Karl Marx’s day, religion, assured societal calm and productivity despite rampant disregard for individual rights? Television has served us nicely in that way for more than half a century now, and government bennies — to individuals, communities, and corporations — have quelled disquiet that in other lands and other times has led to revolt. I view the Valium effect of television and handouts with more bemusement than consternation, let alone outrage.

But the iPod! This, this brings my blood to a boil. Trendy folk turn up their snouts at “Lite Rock,” Muzak, and other lounge-lizard music designed to soothe the savage breast and keep activity in the workplace flowing, or calm rage among phone callers on hold. Yet the iPod-people are piping into their own noggins music they have chosen for precisely its soothing, pacifying, elevator-music character: even if it’s the White Stripes or Henry Rollins or Ja Rule, not necessarily easy on one’s eardrums, the music selections are designed to soothe the listener in the certitude of his or her world-view.

Are iPods about music at all? Yes, I suppose so, even if they more resemble self-medication. Turned on, tuned in, dropped out, iPodsters are not creating community via their vast numbers. They are not joining the global village but narcissistically withdrawing from it as they traverse the planet with their portable backdrops. (George Carlin used to say about the formerly unseen but now ubiquitous water bottle: “Since when did people become so thirsty?”) The earbuds and lanyard of the iPod form an electronic leash, not to Big Brother via GPRS tracking systems, as some nuts claim, but to their own youth, for iPod people old enough to know better, or, for the authentically young, to their own less developed selves.

How to say this simply? Life is not IN there, between your ears; it is OUT there, in what you have yet to experience. Pythagoras and his followers thought that music was everywhere, but hidden from view as numbers … not as numbers on playlists. Some websites now devote themselves entirely to analyzing celebrity playlists, from quarterback Tom Brady to quarterback George Bush, as if we could learn more about their true selves this way than in seeing what choices they make in a pinch. “Bush bares soul with ‘iPod One,’” read a headline on CNN’s site; forget Iraq or Katrina, or Rovegate or an Alice in Wonderland tax policy; if you wish to know who W is when he’s kickin’ back, here y’are:

W’s Playlist:
1. Centerfield, John Fogerty
2. New Biography, Van Morrison
3. Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
4. Circle Back, John Hiatt
5. Castanets, Alejandro Escovedo
6. (You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care, Joni Mitchell
7. El Paso, The Gourds
8. The House is Rockin', Stevie Ray Vaughan
9. Swinging From the Chains of Love, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings
10. Say It Ain't So, The Thrills
11. My Sharona, The Knack
12. Alan Jackson
13. George Jones

I leave the analysis to you; I don’t care. As to squeaky-clean neat-o Tom Brady’s playlist, I can attest that as a music aficionado he is a mighty fine quarterback.

Brady’s Playlist:
1. Dream On, Aerosmith
2. Lose Yourself, Eminem
3. Possum Kingdom, The Toadies
4. If I Can't, 50 Cent
5. Fell on Black Days, Soundgarden
6. Bittersweet Symphony, The Verve
7. Award Tour, A Tribe Called Quest
8. Mysterious Ways, U2
9. I Can, Nas
10. Shiver, Coldplay
11. My Name Is, Eminem
12. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, U2
13. Jesus Walks, Kanye West
14. Beast of Burden, The Rolling Stones
15. Wonderwall (Live), Oasis
16. Black, Pearl Jam
17. Sunday Bloody Sunday, U2
18. Encore, Jay-Z

Composer Philip Glass, in an interview featured as an extra on the Koyaanisqatsi DVD, spoke to the importance of silence and space, equally to the artist and to his audience, to the effect that “People hate commercials, even though some win prizes, because they pile things on top of one another so fast that there is no space between the pop of the can of soda or beer and the voice telling you something. They [deliberately] leave no space for you to enter and evaluate their claim — that’s the propaganda characteristic.” The iPod is not unlike an adman’s pitch in that its messages shield the listener against unmanufactured feelings.

Like a gated community, the iPod aids in keeping the outsiders out and the insiders in. That’s arguably no way to run a democracy, and it ought to be no part of a life still in formation. The folks at Apple would have us believe, with their commercials of young women dancin’ up a storm in their minds while plugged into an appliance, that this money machine of theirs is hip, it’s young, it brings people together.

Smile when you say that, podner.

--John Thorn


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