The Utter Creepiness of iPods

iPods creep me out. There, I said it.

It took several months for me to be guilted into learning how to use the iPod on my smart phone. Am I the only one pissed off about the requirement that I must master a new mode of technology every time I just want to have a few jollies?

I violently hate the remote for our satellite TV. I gave up trying to figure out how to switch everything over so I can watch a DVD. I stalked around my classroom this fall like Dr. Frankenstein after I couldn’t figure out how to access a drop-down menu in the “new and improved” 2010 Word.

So, until recently, the little orange iPod icon languished unused on my phone. I forgot it was even there.  Then one of my communications students heard me make a crack about how I hadn’t learned how to use the iPod part of my phone. “You spend FIFTEEN HOURS in your car every week and you haven’t figured out the iPod yet? Aren’t you a communications professor?”

Nothing like a little embarrassment to get a person off their ass (or, in this case, onto their ass). I know the iPod user interface is supposed to be elegant. But when I grew up, the “user interface” was turning the radio on. Even the sainted Steve Jobs didn’t manage to improve on that.

So I sat and learned how to rip a few of my old CDs (after I installed, updated, and massaged iTunes).  I figured out how to sync the stupid phone (after humiliating myself by asking one of my teenaged sons for help). About two hours later, I was ready for Personal Entertainment Fun in the car.

And lo, let the list of resentments begin. Every time I look down at the phone screen to start up the iPod, I have to take my sunglasses off—naturally the easily-accessed buttons on my dash radio can’t be used to control anything. I resent the fact that the only thing visible on the digital readout on my car radio is the idiotic-sounding AUX.

I resent how using the iPod makes answering the phone impossible, since its umbilici inevitably twist around the emergency brake.  If I try putting the little fetus on my thigh to keep it handy, the gyroscope inside the phone decides I want to look at stuff sideways (which results in me driving with my knees while shaking my phone like a rat terrier).

And then, boys and girls, something even more sinister started to happen. I started skipping to my favorite songs. It turns out I’m listening to about ten songs over and over again out of the several hours of music that I begrudgingly uploaded.

I know that many people who love music will obsessively listen to an artist whenever they get a new album (and I happen to be one of those people).  But I’ve started getting the willies every time I find myself mainlining favorites…because now, I do this all the time. Not just some of the time.

And sometimes I (gasp) don’t even listen to the whole song.  

When I was growing up, there was no way to replay your favorite songs, unless you were sitting right in front of a record player or were willing to break your cassette tape with excessive rewinds.

If you heard one song by an artist that you absolutely loved, you had to be willing to gamble and buy the whole album. I still remember my excitement when I found a Donny Iris tape in the bargain bin at a record store. But I hated the rest of the album (what could possibly match up to the great “Ah Leah!” anyway?).  I remember glumly thinking that I should’ve known better.

“Favorite songs” back when I grew up were accidents, unless you could afford to buy an album every time you heard a song you liked. We stumbled on our favorites like lost twenty-dollar bills in the gutter. When a good song came on the radio, you sat in your driveway until the song was over, or drove around the block a couple more times. You turned the radio or boom box up so loud your parents hollered.

You savored those songs, in other words.

Now, digital music allows everyone to high-grade favorite songs as easily as picking a favorite candybar out of the trick-or-treat bowl.  You cull the best and leave the rest, and sit immersed in your absolute Grade AA No. 1 favorites for hours.  You don’t have to invest in an artist, or get to know their other work. There isn’t any gambling, and there isn’t any of that let-those-other-songs-on-the-CD-you-don’t-like-so-much-grow-on-you thing.

The last time I was in the car with my 17-year-old twin sons, one of them started shuffling through songs on his phone about every five seconds.  “Can you NOT JUST PLAY ONE WHOLE SONG?” I finally shrieked.

“I knew you wouldn’t like our music,” he smirked, and his brother snorted in agreement.

“I love the Gorillaz. Just play one whole song!”

“Sweet Jesus. YOU know who the Gorillaz are?”

The thing is that exactly the same thing is happening to me. I’ve started just taking bites out of my favorite songs and leaving the rest, like some poor half-eaten sandwich on the counter.

So why, after all this work ripping CDs and figuring out how to use the damn thing, should it bother me so much to have such instant access and control over my favorite songs? I’ve earned the right after going through all this hassle, haven’t I?

But the iPod’s leaching the magic out of music for me. I’m losing my musical perspective. I never have to sit through a song I don’t like. I don’t even have to sit through parts of songs I don’t like. I’m getting harder to please, and I feel like I’m turning into a musical snob.

My favorite songs will still be my favorite songs, but I will never relish them quite as much. They will no longer be happy surprises, shanghaiing me from out of nowhere to instantly change my mood. They will no longer indelibly remind me of a certain place or time, because I will have listened to them in many different places and all the time.

Now that these songs are all lined up under my thumb, I don’t have to be grateful for them. They’re at my service. I’m in complete charge of them, and somehow that makes them not mean as much.

Maybe I can go back. Maybe I grit my teeth and ignore the commercials and lame playlists and start listening to the radio again. But I suspect the iPod is like musical crack—once you’re hooked, you have two choices: either keep using, or sadly trudge through life while doing your best to ignore the fact that there is a hard, clean hit out there with your name on it.

 (Just in case you’re wondering what the top ten are: Elton John’s “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun,” “Fresh Blood” by the Eels, “Red-Eye” by The Album Leaf, “Brick House” by the Commodores, “Trilogy 7” by Abfahrt Hinwil, “Squares” by the Beta Band, “Music for Chameleons” by Gary Numan, “Zebra” by the John Butler Trio, “Mr. McGee” by Zero 7, and “Bones” by Little Big Town.)

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Utter Creepiness of iPods

  1. Couz

    Interesting post!

    All people of a certain age seem to have favorite “albums”, remember the kismet of the perfect song on the radio at the perfect time, or even the looking forward to a certain day of the week for the event of watching a favorite show, commercials and all. We really were time-bound in a way that does not seem to exist today.

    My 9 year old son frequently asks us to skip to the next song when we are listening to XM, and seems to partially believe that we are lying to him when we say we can’t. As a child of TiVo, he has no concept of the weekly rhythm of TV shows. The more ascetic parts of my brain feel we are doing him a disservice–isn’t the anticipation of something desired part of what makes it good? Can all this technology-driven distillation be detrimental? Maybe Twitter was just inevitable.

    That said, we have evolved into a family musical tradition over the past few years that has really become something that we all enjoy, and has become a nice way to negotiate between conflicting musical tastes: Pandora internet radio. When we go on vacations, for holidays and even longer events, we create a new Pandora station (usually I’ll put in the seed song, based on something I’m pretty sure the whole family likes, or a few seen songs when tastes are conflicting) and name it for the event, then we allow anyone to “thumbs-up” any song they like, and require unanimous consent to “thumbs-down” a song. During the event, there is far less fighting about music (or the lack thereof). What is really neat, is that months or years later, we can put on the same station and hear a station that has many of the songs and flavor of what we heard in the past. Basically the musical equivalent of a slide show that we all enjoy coming back to from time to time.

    btw, the whole concept of not listening to a whole song…although technology makes it easier for everyone, I wonder if gender plays a role 🙂

    • Anonymous

      Pandora is the best invention since sliced bread, but I don’t listen in the car (data plan/slow phone won’t allow). What a cool idea for vacations!

      Time-bound–yes, we were. (I love that phrase, T.) And the anticipation thing and the shared ritual thing were a part of all of it. I can’t tell you how many times myself I’ve wanted to “rewind” live radio programs I’m listening to (stuff I can’t rewind and have no control over). So I’m on Gunther’s side on that one.

  2. funder

    I think digital music (starting with CDs, of course!) just changes your favorite-music-experience a bit. I am the short attention span queen, and I’ve worn off the paint on the fast-forward button on my steering wheel controller. I do sort of OD on my latest favorite songs, but I’ve found that just makes them more reminiscent of a certain time when I go back to them later. Miles Fisher’s remake of This Must Be the Place? Moving cross-country. Lada Gaga? Road trips exploring the area. Now I’m big into the Talking Heads, and years from now it’ll be “oh that’s what I listened to the year G worked out of town.”

    Here’s how I combat my tendencies to listen to the same 10 songs over and over: I don’t use playlists. I just put all my music on my ipod and leave it on shuffle-all all the time. Yeah, it means I hit next track a lot, but I also get to hear stuff I forgot I owned! And when one of my current favorites finally comes up, it’s a little more exciting, just like listening to the radio.

    Every now and then I get nostalgic for the bad old days, when you’d wait allll day to maybe hear your favorite song, but you’re absolutely right: you can’t go back. It’s like being nostalgic for having to be home at 7 pm on Thursdays or you’d never know what happened on The Simpsons – ugh, the horrors! We lived like animals in the dark ages of the 20th century. 😉

    • Anonymous

      Talking Heads are one of my all-time faves! And I am trying to do the shuffle thing (and LEAVE IT ALONE) but it’s like trying to leave a bucket of your favorite candy alone if it’s sitting right next to you in the car.

      We might have lived like animals, but there’s an old saying…”In every great loss comes some small gain.” Easily flipped on its head to: “In every great gain there is some small loss….

  3. I have a hard time with technology. My daughter just showed me how to download iTunes onto the computer and rip a CD. Haven’t graduated to the iPod yet. I’m afraid I’m going to have to learn all this stuff soon and get with it though.

    By the way Brick House is a song we picked out for Dusty just in case she ever gets trained enough to do some musical dressage. (Unlikely, but it’s fun to think ahead just in case).

  4. This was very interesting (and funny) to read and I found myself agreeing with you. I remember well the days of flipping a 45 to listen to the backside and being so starved for entertainment, playing it over and over and again even though it wasn’t the “main” song. I remember the difficulty in finding the newly released 45s, too. I’d be flipping through dividers only to find the spot where my favorite song was supposed to be empty. Then I’d have to go back over and over again to the store to get it. A little different than downloading it from itunes, wouldn’t you say? I don’t have an iPod, by the way. But in defense of the techno-generation, at least my kids anyway, I’ve found that they know a lot of music. My son has everything on his pod–60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s…he’s always asking me if this or that song was one of my favorites, and if I happen to say….yeah, it was….he’ll crank it up and play it for me. I was a head-banger, so AC/DC was one of my old faves–but nowadays I’m more of a Jenn Grant fan.

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