Pod People

This Valentine's Day, the fastest way to the heart may be through the earbuds

Time was, if you met someone cool and cute, someone you wanted to know better, you might make that person a mix tape. It was the perfect courtship calling card: a neat little package of songs carefully selected to say something about both you and your understanding of the recipient.

Today, such compilations are an anachronism. Most stereos don't even have tape decks anymore. Countless couples will probably trade mix CDs this Valentine's Day, but the point-and-click process of CD burning is rather sterile; it's possible to make someone a mix CD without having to listen to a single song. As an inveterate trader of cassettes, I've been in steady mourning for the mix tapes of my youth for some time now. However, I recently acquired both an iPod and a boyfriend—who'd just gotten an iPod of his own. We were debating whose library had more songs when he had a brilliant idea, one that could replace the mix tape for the 21st century: the iPod swap.

If anything synthesizes the personal nature of a homemade recording with the ease and techie charm of digital music, it's the iPod. While other MP3 players (like those made by Nomad and Rio) reflect the individual tastes of the owner, no other gadget has been so successful at developing a certain kind of image: Call it L-train sex appeal. The distinctive white headphones, cutely called "earbuds," identify a user at 30 yards, so that it's possible to scan a subway car and instantly know who's in the club. As a result, even when the plugs in an iPod user's ears isolate her from the rest of the world, the shiny white oblong on the other end of the wire makes her part of a growing community. Apple has sold 1.4 million iPods since their introduction in 2001; the number of sales in the past year alone has increased by 235 percent. Straddling the gap between individualized entertainment and shared experience, the iPod is a wildly popular paradox. It's also, in my experience, the most eminently swappable format for music since the cassette tape mix.

Of course, there's one dramatic difference between an iPod and a mix tape: Mixes are entirely constructed. As Nick Hornby wrote in High Fidelity, the process of making a tape for a romantic interest is as laborious as it is rewarding. You have to select the right songs, arrange them in the optimal order, and spend at least an hour hovering over the tape deck recording them onto the cassette. (Certain types will follow all of this by taking scissors to old magazines to make a cover-art collage.) The end product is not a reflection of your record collection so much as a presentation of how you'd like it to look.

An iPod, by contrast, keeps no secrets. The iPod records what songs have been played both most recently and most often, so it quickly becomes a record of the owner's internal aural landscape. Listening to someone else's iPod is thus an intimate, almost invasive activity. On the scale of personal exposure, it's not exactly trading diaries, but it's much more revealing than a mix tape—for example, I never would have expected the boyfriend to have an ethereal cover version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane," mislabeled "Björk," as his most recently played track. It also quickly gets self-referential: When I got my iPod back, I put on the "Recently Played" list to see what bands he'd checked out. My iPod then dutifully recorded me listening to the songs he'd heard.

While the iPod swap seems to be undocumented so far, the November Wired reported on another way the gadgets have facilitated the person-to-person music exchange: jack sharing. When iPod users cross paths in suburban New Jersey, they sometimes greet by briefly plugging their earbud cords into each other's jacks. Software executive Steve Crandall noted the trend on his blog (tingilinde.typepad.com), concluding, "People fundamentally want to share the experience of listening to music—this is something that is part of us and is generally ignored by the music industry."

Like the iPod swap, Crandall's final sentence gets at the paradox of the iPod. As countless music geeks and Luddites have pointed out, iPods should be bad for music and bad for communities. The unit of exchange in an iPod is the song, not the album, and the intended user is the individual, not the group. This should discourage music sharing, instead creating a world in which listeners dismantle albums for the gratification of no one but themselves. At the same time, however, iPods are not only surprisingly good devices for person-to-person exchanges of music—they also have created a new community among their owners.

The ubiquitous neon-and-silhouette Apple ad posters play on this paradox. Each features a dancing hipster alone with the machine, which appears to be all he or she needs to have fun. The only distinctive thing about the dancers, and the only thing they have in common from ad to ad, is their white device. Plugged into an iPod and walking past one of the ads, it's impossible not to feel a thrill of recognition: Hey, I've got white earbuds too, just like that silhouette of the girl with the jaunty newsboy cap!

You and Cap Girl, however, are still rocking out to different songs; in fact, Cap Girl may have personally constructed her own idiosyncratic playlist for rocking-out purposes. And since most of us under a certain age have TV-shriveled attention spans, it's safe to assume that when a song ceases to rock, Cap Girl sometimes just skips to the next one. Cap Girl might also have forgone the work of making a playlist, instead using the "Browse" feature, which shuffles through all of your songs for you. In a way, "Browse" is like having your own personal radio station; then again, that station is being DJ'd by someone else. Luddites love to hate this function because it's a potent symbol of the worst effects of technology in a society based on individualism. As it selects songs from your very own music collection, "Browse" marries the pleasingly personal with the incredibly lazy.

Then again, other people might be just as gratified by what "Browse" does to your own library of songs, and it's not like an iPod can't be plugged into a stereo. In fact, in addition to exposing our friends to music via iPod swapping and jack sharing, many of us are bringing our iPods out on the town. Using iPods as music-exchange devices has caught on with DJs like Andrew Andrew of New York's APT, who run their iParties entirely with their shiny white toys. In L.A., iPod parties do away with DJs entirely—guests each get to plug their iPods into the bar's sound system for a certain amount of time.

A final element in the iPod paradox: No one throws "Personal MP3 Player Parties," and people with Nomads or Rios tend not to make eyes at each other on the subway. While the content of your iPod is deeply revealing, iPod ownership in itself tells the world something about you. Even aside from the white earbuds, an iPod is a gorgeous creature: Sleek and seamless, it looks nothing like the Walkman or Discman of old. It does, however, look like many other Apple products, which tend to be fetish items among design fans. In fact, it may be that the iPod is the highest-selling Mac item because it gets the most street exposure. If people regularly used their G4s or iBooks on the sidewalk, those items might also escape the cult of Mac and become coveted by the mainstream. Since iPods are both publicly used and easy to spot, they have become shorthand for a certain kind of cool that can only be achieved by purchasing an iPod of your own—in other words, they sell themselves.

Ultimately, this sort of infinite regress may reveal the most about how iPods are changing the way people interact through music today. Unlike the fait accompli of a 30-track mix tape wrapped in annotated liner notes and packaged with a cover-art collage, an iPod's internal organization is always shifting. Just as iPod sightings on the subway create more iPod-using subway riders, an intriguing "Recently Played" list causes those same songs to be played once again. This vertigo can't exist in a vacuum—not even a neon-colored vacuum occupied by a lone dancer in earbuds. Intentionally or not, Apple's MP3 player realizes its true potential as a personal device only when it's shared.


Izzy Grinspan is 14.99 iPods tall.

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