The iPod Turns 10


This past Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of Apple’s digital-music player the iPod, though you’d be forgiven if you thought it were older. The iPod’s rapid evolution during its first decade seems natural in the context of our ever-changing times, but just try and hold one of the first click-wheeled models at the same time as a sleek iPhone 4S; the difference seems like that between a brick and a feather, or perhaps more appropriately, a manual typewriter and a barely there MacBook Air.

The first iPods had capacities of five and 10 gigabytes: That was enough to fit about one or two thousand songs, or approximately 83 or 164 12-song albums. Gone were the Case Logic “wallets” that held CDs in batches, bloating bags and resulting in awkward fussing on train rides. Gone, too, the decisions over whether to pack a disc in order to spin one song, thanks to the ability to select songs one by one. And those songs could be from any source as long as they had been digitized first, whether a seven-inch that fell out of print after its first tiny pressing or an album that broke the million-shipped threshold of a platinum album.

Tuesday night’s Smashing Pumpkins show at Terminal 5 was, in a way, a testament to the idea of a band’s catalog sticking around forever (or at least until the hard drive crapped out). No longer bound by pesky things like limited-edition pressings or in-store availability of product, the digital-music age ushered in an era of consumption. People who wanted to gorge on a particular band’s catalog could do so after just a little bit of online sleuthing (and a lot more waiting back in the era when the iPod first came out). Lead Pumpkin Billy Corgan—the only member of the band’s classic early ’90s lineup—led his charges through a set that included a healthy smattering of B sides from its earliest days; the audience knew the words to both those nuggets as well as to tracks from the band’s forthcoming album, Oceania, which had more recently been loosed online.

The iPod also helped usher in the age of shuffle, and your music collection became an ever-thrumming glob of songs that could be mixed and matched without effort. In the CD era, some audiophiles were able to engage in behavior that mimicked the iPod’s shuffling capabilities—the few 100-CD players on the market allowed for those people with big enough record collections to show just how wide the breadth of their taste was or to wittily remark on the machines having a mind of their own when, say, Metallica segued into Mozart or some other genre.

Now that sort of catholic approach to music listening is somewhat more commonplace. Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, the Korean pop-music concern SM Entertainment threw a gala concert, a three-and-a-half-hour spectacle full of pyrotechnics, flying boybanders, and synchronized dance moves. Not only was the teeming crowd a testament to how music that was once locked up by import-CD prices and tussles over copyright could make its way to these shores more easily, but SM (with the assistance of U.S. pop songwriters like former Guy member Teddy Riley) also used the concept of “pop” as a jumping-off point instead of a means to its own end, a concept that fits in quite snugly with the idea of shuffling through one’s music connection. The glitzy show had songs that were inspired by obvious antecedents—the glossy, pummeling tracks written by “I Want It That Way” mastermind Max Martin, the chirpy jitter of Janet Jackson—but it also grabbed from metal (complete with the five members of boyband SHINee headbanging in unison), traditional Japanese music, and opera. That the show also contained a tribute to Michael Jackson seemed more than appropriate, given his big-tent approach to pop music, though one wonders what he’d have thought of the action stopping dead for that opera bit. (The aria, performed by the SHINee member known as Onew, was well-sung, but it seemed somewhat dropped-in—like when a song that was downloaded on a lark horns in on a playlist meant for more serious moments.)

Since its birth 10 years ago, the iPod has mutated into the iPhone—a device that makes grown adults wait in line to get it, much like people used to amass outside now-departed record stores in order to get concert tickets. Rumors have persisted that thanks to the new, touchscreen-equipped, Internet-enabled progeny of its staid forbear, Apple will discontinue the “classic” version of the iPod—the one with the ability to play music and not much else, stripped of Angry Birds and weather alerts—sometime in the near future. It’s hard not to see this development, or even the traction gained by the rumors predicting it, as yet another sign that music’s fading into the background or at least losing some of its luster in the context of the greater culture. But that loss of status doesn’t necessarily mean that music is “dead,” as the more hyperbolic pundits out there like to say. More than anything, it’s just becoming more personalized, as the increasingly atomized collections of its fans do the same.

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