Last year, I spent five months in New York working on a TV show. I was lonely, and my preferred method for dealing with that loneliness was shopping online for shit that I didn’t need. One night, I found myself clicking around on eBay when a heavily used iPod caught my eye. The sight instantly filled me with that familiar mixture of joy and nostalgia that BuzzFeed spent the last decade weaponizing for traffic. I clicked “buy” and the iPod arrived about a week later.
Firing it up made me realize how much music, and the way we listen to it, had changed since I last had one of these guys in the mid-2000s. It was a bit of a headache to get the iPod up and running, but after I found the “purchase history” section of the iTunes Store, things started to come together. Soon I was able to get a few thousand songs onto this beat-up little gray rectangle. I ejected it from my computer, threw on some headphones, and fell backwards into bed and in time.
The first thing you have to know about listening to music on an iPod is that your primary action is always listening to music. That might sound obvious, maybe even trite, but after a decade of listening to music on smartphones, it felt refreshing to focus on one thing at a time again—to have a sense of containment. Sure, Spotify and Apple Music give you access to millions of songs whenever you want, but a buffet of infinite choices that seems appetizing in the abstract can in reality feel paralyzing. There’s just too much shit to choose from! Listening to something on the iPod, on the other hand, felt intentional—sort of like putting on a record. (I know.) Part of that had to do with the “inconvenience” of using it: Loading music is a whole process, and so, when faced with an active choice, I found myself listening to full albums front to back. (Maybe a few skips.) Unlike my phone, I didn’t feel the need to bounce from song to podcast to YouTube video to NBA highlights on Twitter.
That mild, latent form of FOMO that comes whenever you’re doing something on a phone just wasn’t there. This is hardly a novel insight, but it isn’t a secret that our phones are reshaping our brain chemistries every second of every day, whether that’s getting a ping from a work email, or eight separate push notifications letting you know what the president tweeted, or your bank telling you that you just got paid. (And then your bank telling you that your credit card payment is due.) So on some level it felt good to resist that—to separate myself from the constant stream notifications that were scrambling my brain.
And a funny thing happened when the iPod became my primary form of engaging with music. Things slowed down, and I started to write down notes of albums I wanted to buy when I got home. I figured out how to disconnect Apple Music from my library to give me that old school iTunes experience (the key is turning off iCloud Music), and then found myself spending hours browsing the store. I’d have iTunes open in one window and YouTube open in another just so I could sample albums before deciding whether or not to buy them. I felt like I was back at Tower Records or Kim’s or Other Music in the village. Beyond the economic reasons, it feels good to purchase music (digital album sales are still not great for artists, but they’re worlds better than the percentage of a penny artists make per stream) and it also makes you feel more connected to your purchase. I was far less likely to bounce off an album after buying it, and in the process I ended up discovering deep cuts that I would have missed had I fired up Spotify.
Suddenly, the world of music blogs that used to consume so much of my Internet time were relevant again. I was an active participant in music, not just a passive recipient of whatever the algorithm decided to feed me. Weirdly, I even began to look forward to the act of obsessively adjusting metadata to keep my iTunes library organized. It was oddly meditative: Should Fiona Apple go in Singer/Songwriter or Rock or Alternative? (In fact, while we’re on the subject, where is the line between Rock and Alternative? Should it be based on what years something came out or is it more a question of vibe?)
I’m not alone either. These days there’s a whole iPod community on Reddit devoted to refurbs and customs, and soon enough I was hooked. I came across DankPods, an entertaining YouTuber who somehow modded his iPod to have more storage space than my 2019 MacBook Pro. Before long, my old beat-up eBay purchase with its slow hard-drive and feeble battery just didn’t seem like enough. I wound up on Etsy, where a shop run by a nice guy named Jim called PiratePTiPods sold custom-made iPods in different colors. He could mod them with up to 2 terabytes of fast storage and put in giant batteries that lasted a week. (All for pretty reasonable prices at that!) There are even people right now who are working to make iPods Bluetooth compatible. Still, there are a few wireless kinks to work out, so I haven’t taken the plunge yet, but I do have a small accessory that plugs into the bottom of the iPod and makes it work flawlessly with Airpods and car stereos. (I’ve even taken to giving iPods pre-loaded with a few songs to friends as gifts.)
Nostalgia can be seductive if you’re not careful, but the iPod was, I’d argue, a perfect middle point between music’s past and it’s all-streaming future. As of this writing, my main iPod (I ended up with three, whoops!) has 14,145 songs on it. That’s nothing compared to Spotify or Apple Music’s infinite libraries, but at this point in my life, I’d rather have a collection of music that I feel connected to than all the music in the world.
The Phrase “People of Color” Needs to Die
Best-selling author Damon Young on why the time has come to zap the well-meaning expression from all our vocabularies.
Originally Appeared on GQ