The Power of iPod

The iPod arrived in October 2001, bringing the promise of pleasure to a world in transformation from its comforting analog roots to a disruptive digital future. But no one expected that the iPod would become the signature artifact of our young century, selling more than 60 million units in its first five years. No one envisioned vast swaths of humanity escaping reality via the White Earbud Express. And no one would ever have believed that a 2005 survey would report that the iPod is more popular on college campuses ... than beer. But that's what happened. In his new book, "The Perfect Thing," NEWSWEEK Senior Editor Steven Levy contemplates the ways that the iPod changed the world.

It was perhaps inevitable that the L subway line, running from boho Brooklyn to edgy 14th Street in Manhattan, would be the scene of the so-called iPod Wars. These were musical sumo matches where two iPod wearers spontaneously confront each other, thrusting the screen in each other's faces with a song cue that, ideally, would win the approval of the most pedantic rock critic but be totally unknown to all but a microscopic fraction of the listening public. Such incidents strike deep in Planet iPod, confirming more closely documented observations of how music on one's iPod affects status. Playlist is character.

Musical one-upmanship is nothing new. But the portability of the iPod and the transparency that comes from exposing an iPod screen to an observer make the otherwise private device a potential broadcaster of taste. We seem to be immersed in an age of musical voyeurism. No one is spared, particularly the famous. In response to the question "What's on your iPod?" we learn that CNN newsman Aaron Brown's iTunes library includes "everything that Paul Simon has ever done," and that the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has loaded his silver mini with Broadway show tunes and that song by Harry Nilsson about the lime in the coconut. In July 2004, George W. Bush's daughters presented him with a 40-gig iPod. It included "My Sharona," a selection successfully suppressed until after he was reelected in 2004. Dick Cheney's iPod features the Carpenters. (Zzzzz.) No word on what's on Queen Elizabeth's mini, but we know that the Pope's white nano has Beethoven, Chopin and podcasts from Vatican Radio.

Surfing someone's iPod is not merely a revelation of character but a means to a rich personal narrative, navigated by click wheel. At one point the universal goal of the literate was to write the Great American Novel. Then the Great Ameri-can Screenplay. And now, the Great American iTunes Library.

Download When Apple successfully rolled out its iTunes Music Store, the record labels professed delight. Finally people were paying for digital music. But the good feelings were mixed with consternation at the not-so-subtle shift that online buying represented for their business model. Downloading music a song at a time represents one of those fundamental shifts in the way people consume music and ultimately the way people will go about making music. Fifty years ago, the 45-rpm "single" created an entire culture based on the frenzied three-minute playing time. In the sixties this was surpassed by the dinner-plate-size slab of vinyl known as the LP. In the 1990s, the CD arrived and suddenly artists had a full hour to fill. So they filled it with second-rate offerings. "They have a couple of songs and then the rest isn't very good," says Stephan Jenkins of the rock group Third Eye Blind. "They're just trying to get the royalty rate for twelve tracks."

The à la carte option in the iTunes store changes that. People can buy only the good songs. Not coincidentally, the cherry-picking method reflects the way people now listen to music ... shuffling it on their iPods. "The linear experience is gone," says rock musician John Mayer. "The iPod scroll bar has changed the chemistry of listening and now we're a skip-forward generation."

Personal Has the iPod destroyed the social fabric, locking us into a cycle of self-love from our hand-picked music library straight into our brains, via earbuds? Has it transmogrified us into a zombie culture?

The iPod is only the most recent, and most compelling, advance in a movement of portable cocooning that's been underway for decades. In 1974, sociologist Raymond Williams used the term "mobile privatization" to describe the phenomenon of people forming technological bubbles around themselves. And in 1979, the breakthrough device in personal audio, Sony's Walkman, was an exercise in two things: escape (shutting out the world) and enhancement (when your world is transformed into a soundtrack , reshaping your perception of the crappy world around you).

The iPod takes this a huge step further. Because it holds so much of one's music and can play back the songs with near-infinite variety, its addictiveness far exceeds that of the Walkman. Because it is more compact, it goes more places, with more ease. The world now seems split in two: those locked into iPod reveries and those griping about how they have lost contact with the cooler part of the world.

Podcast By the early 2000s, Internet pioneers figured out a system that let you download, and even subscribe to, audio files directly into digital jukeboxes and players. But it wasn't until September 2004, when the process was given a name that tapped the power of Apple's player, that the practice took off: Podcast. Bloggers popularized the term. In a matter of weeks, plugging the word "podcast" into a Google search field yielded hundreds of thousands of hits. (The number is now 239 million .) People spontaneously created mini-broadcasts. The price of entry into this new form of radio was a microphone and an Internet connection.

The progress of podcasts followed the earlier evolutionary path of Web sites from fringe to mainstream, this time at a rate so accelerated that it was almost a blur. This was helped by Apple's integration of podcasting into the iTunes store. One day the most popular podcasts were quirky homegrown productions like "Dawn and Drew," by a wacky postpunk couple living in a Wisconsin farmhouse, and on what seemed the very next day, people were downloading podcasts from The New York Times, National Public Radio and Major League Baseball. (Oh, and NEWSWEEK.) One might have expected the new, more professional podcasts to overwhelm the upstarts. But a funny thing happened: while the NPR podcasts dominated the popularity lists, the Dawn and Drews of the world were also well represented. When established performers like Liz Phair began podcasting their backstage ramblings, that didn't drive out more obscure musical podcasting pioneers like the Lascivious Biddies, a show-tune-style contingent who let fans eavesdrop on the tour bus. It really was possible for someone to grab some podcasting software, make a radio show, and find a niche audience among the millions of people scrounging for something new to hear on their iPods.

By October 2005, audio podcasts were well integrated into the media food chain. Then came the fifth-generation iPod, with video--along with an announcement that the iTunes store would offer ad-free episodes of TV shows, including the blockbusters "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," for $1.99. Before that day, television shows were basically network-based presentations running in a designated time slot. Now they were no longer advertiser-supported productions broken up by annoying commercial messages consisting of as much as a third of their run time. They were shows you paid for, costing less than a latte, and viewed without interruption. You could download them any time and view them wherever you were, using your iPod. They were podcasts.

From the perfect thing by Steven Levy, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. © 2006 by Steven Levy.

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