Why the iPod was the signature music device of its era | Cult of Mac

Why the iPod was the signature music device of its era

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Cover of the Cult of iPod book
The cover of The Cult of iPod, my book that documented the gadget's cultural impact.
Photo: Leander Kahney/No Starch Press

The following is from the introduction to The Cult of iPod, my 2005 book about the massive impact of the tiny music player. Introduced in 2001, the iPod quickly became one of the most important gadgets of all time. It transformed Apple and it brought a lot of joy into people’s lives. All told, Apple sold about 400 million iPods before officially pulling the plug on the device Tuesday.

I hope this intro captures why I loved the iPod, as did millions of other people.

Excerpt from The Cult of iPod

Fire, the wheel, and the iPod. In the history of invention, gadgets don’t come more iconic than Apple’s digital music player. The iPod is to the 21st century what the big band was to the ’20s, the radio to the ’40s, or the juke-box to the ’50s — the signature technology that defines the musical culture of the era. And what a marvelous technology the iPod is. Inside Apple’s little white box is magic, pure magic, in the guise of music.

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Inside the iPod, a music collection comes alive

Like a cell phone or a laptop, the iPod is kept close and carried everywhere. It’s used every day, but not for work or to enslave you by persistent contact. The iPod is used to invoke euphoria. People are in love with music. The sparkling genius of the iPod is that it gives it to you in huge doses. The iPod can store an entire lifetime’s worth of music. And so it becomes the most personal of personal devices. More than a computer, a car, or a fancy pair of shoes, it’s part of your makeup, your personality. What’s on it — the music — tells who you are. Music is deep in your heart and soul.

I’m a music junkie from England, a nation of music junkies. Since late childhood, music has been a passion, sometimes an obsession, that often took precedence over all other interests — food, love, even cigarettes. Like a lot of people, I had a giant collection of vinyl LPs and CDs that grew over the years into an unmanageable archive weighing hundreds of pounds.

Too heavy for shelves, the records sat on the floor, spilling into the room. But for the most part, the collection was merely for other people to gawk at. I didn’t play most of the records, and except for a few disks at the front of the pile, I forgot and neglected most of them. Fast forward, and now the entire collection can fit inside a small white box the size and weight of a pack of cards.

This to me is a miracle. A crowning achievement of technology. That unwieldy pile of vinyl and cardboard has been freed from the living room and is available anywhere and everywhere I go: from the earliest, regrettable singles to my latest obsession.

The joy of Random Shuffle

Inside the iPod, a music collection comes alive. There’s delight in loading up a ton of stuff from all genres, eras and styles, and seeing what the machine comes up with. Select Random Shuffle, and the iPod dredges up tunes you might never consciously choose to play. But chosen for you, they’re a delight.

This mode of play also allows you to discover gems in a collection that previously sat unplayed on a shelf of CDs. Songs previously neglected can become top favorites. And then there are all those tunes you never knew you had. Random Shuffle can create great surprises, selecting just the right song at just the right time. Or it can throw together unexpected combinations: Burning Spear followed by Ludacris.

It doesn’t always work, but when it does, you’re in pop heaven.

The iPod has changed forever my listening habits. No longer do I want to hear an album all the way through (with rare exceptions). What I want is a playlist of my favorites. Listening to the iPod makes a cinematic adventure of a trip to the supermarket or a boring car drive.

It adds a sense of otherworldliness to walking down the most familiar street. There’s nothing better for exercise — pounding beats and breaks to get you energized to mount the summit of a hill. I like listening to the iPod while riding my bike (yeah, I know it’s dangerous and probably illegal). High as a kite off the exercise, the music transports me to nirvana.

Sometimes, when the right tune pops up, I’m truly in heaven.