Updated: Feb 20
Once so very central to many consumers lives, the iPod, along with its non-Apple variants, has since gone the way of all the other consumer products caught-up in the iPhone revolution.
The iPod Touch remains as a product, but for many Apple customers, the iPod as a product concept has effectively been absorbed by the iPhone and into the ethereal world of streaming. Music consumption today is not so much about devices that hold content, whether it be physical or digital, but about which brand is sending music content to the consumer wherever he or she may be.
In HG Wells’ The Time Machine, the great author (who died in 1946, but whose cultural impact is as strong today as it ever was) describes a future planet Earth where humanity has split into two tribes, one preying unchallenged on the other.
Below ground (the underclass, if you will) the Morlocks are strong, violent and singular in their aim to survive. Above ground, the Eloi are weak, aesthetic and subject to violent harvesting by the Eloi. Wells describes their relationship thus, “The two species that had resulted from the evolution of man were sliding down towards, or had already arrived at, an altogether new relationship. The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility.”
In The Time Machine, the diluted, aimless Eloi are distinguished by their effete passivity, and the Morlocks conditioned to take what they need from the Eloi simply to survive. It is a world of evolved desire, of division and threat, all based upon a class order that has become ingrained with visual symbolism.
Today, street crime in the United Kingdom remains a lingering concern for many, and one of the targets of criminals in the current climate, according to the police, are smartphones. Or occasionally, the iPod Touch, distinguished by its easy to spot white earphones, which identify those music lovers willing to pay £199 upwards for the latest generation music player, but which looks like an iPhone.
At the turn of the Millennium the original iPod was hyper-desirable, and a very public display of a certain kind of wealth, to the cultural and not so culturally savvy. Over recent years it is the mobile phone that has become the muggers favourite (see the remnants of the television campaigns warning consumers not to flaunt [i.e. use] their mobile phones in sight of potential thieves).
Before that, it was the car stereo.
Hawkers of unboxed car stereos no longer ling at the bar in the pubs and clubs of the land as they once did. Car stereos, like, perhaps the cars they were a part of, have long ago become less than desirable and swept away by digitisation. iPods, however, continue to be walked about on the High Street in the form of the Touch (even if they do look somewhat confusingly like iPhones).
Before the iPod, there was the portable CD player, and before that, there was the Walkman, which was released in 1979, apparently out of nowhere, and which took the Western consumer market by storm. The Walkman, in its various guises down the years, from jog-proof to water-proof to coupled-with-a-radio was loud, disposable and near indestructible. The portable CD players that followed (no longer defined by the Sony cache as its C90 predecessor had been) kept pace with the silver disc times, but were not as loved as their snap-shut, press and play predecessors.
The world was waiting to be rescued and coolified, and it was Apple that gave it what it wanted by making its music consumers feel cool.
Which in itself was odd, because Apple had had its ups and a lot of downs before the launch of the first-generation iPod in 2001. At that point, the company was no one's idea of a saviour. It was a computer company for a start, not a media company and the iPod was based upon the proposition of using the Mac/PC to digitise music before it could be used (effectively making the consumer do the leg work to get the media into the media device in the first place). But the iPod was a hit immediately at launch and, as demand increased, the company became more and more about content and, in the process, cool all over again.
So much so that today you can buy into the apple lifestyle in device and service form, if you have the (not unsubstantial) financial resources to pay for its devices and services. But it was the iPod that saved Apple and gave the western world's commuters, joggers, rail travellers and music lovers something to do with their thinking time.
The promise of the iPod in 2001 was not only in its affordability and cuteness but also in its potential to store. Storage (and particularly digital storage) had become our very Western obsession by the time the noughties came around and the iPod was launched at the right time to ride that growing accumulative cultural wave.
Coming into the new century we were already becoming accustomed to storing our documents and photographs on PCs or little memory cards and USB sticks, as well as our furniture and the - you know - stuff we no longer had a use for, in big metal boxes on weather-blown retail parks. It is a trend that has continued to the present day.
Now, we no longer let go of and discard; we recycle, sell on or store. Even music has become, in this process of accumulating and commodity indexing, merely more 'stuff' to build up or stream, until we might have a use or time to listen to it. We are the privileged hoarders against the threat of tomorrow and nothing now is safe from our grasp, not even popular art. Not even The Beatles.
And so the iPod fits recent history just as the Walkman fitted the fast-approaching at the time self-actuating 80s. Where the 80s was about doing something, being someone and inventing something (even if it was only a persona) the new millennium was to become the decade of holding on.
With global terrorism, the vagueries of a climate emergency and randomising pandemics, who could blame us while we hunker down and wait for something better to come along? And until that happens we at least have our lifetime collection of tunes to keep us company, digitised in our pocket or on a server somewhere, waiting to be listened to.
When we have the time.