Halflife iPod

July 10, 2008

Recent developments with my iPod have once again hammered home to me how transformations in the technology of recorded music continue to shape and alter our sense of music, of listening, even of our selves. 

My Mom bought me my first iPod a few years ago: a 60 gig monster designed to hold photos as well as tunes. The white unit, with a grey screen, is about as thick as a deck of cards and has a nice heft in the hand. It looks like one of those cold-pac units that long-traveling spacefarers employ in SciFi movies like 2001, only designed for two people, like those couple-friendly sleeping bags. I’d say now that there was already something sepulchral to the item, a foreshadow of coming decline. 

I got the iPod about the time when mp3 addiction was in full effect. I was downloading tunes like a hog, and was mostly interested in obscure or out-of-print music—experimental electronic, 20th century avant-garde, old psych, underground folk, ethnic field recordings and black metal. I would barely listen to this stuff before loading it into the Apple device. I also included some old faves and records I was reviewing, and occasional books on tape, and lazily managed the collection until I was toting around well over 50 gigs.

Thing is, I don’t like listening to music while I am walking around or even using public transportation. So I didn’t actually use the unit that much outside of the gym, where its ungainly size and weight tugged against the loose waist band of my gym shorts. Long car trips were improved somewhat, but the perpetual tsunami of urban radio signals where I live made all the wireless hookups to my car stereo I tried pretty frustrating.

Carrying on the family tradition of technology aquisition, my wife then got me a very nifty car stereo:  an Alpine CDA-9887 mp3/wma/aac CD receiver with an easy iPod hookup and a navigation interface that would be reasonably effective if I hadn’t packed the pod larder like an audio survivalist. Because I like to listen to whole albums, and often “process” specific recordings for review or research, I had to unplug the iPod and select the files manually before plugging it back into the Alpine. Still it was groovy. I used my vehicular iPod that way for a few months, and then the thing hit the brick wall of doom that awaits all of these infernal devices: the internal battery died.

I won’t offer the usual shrill complaints and consumerist conspiracy theories. Besides, as I soon discovered, “died” is not really the right word, because of course if the iPod is plugged into an external power source—a computer or the car stereo—it still works fine. What died was its mobility, its panache. In other words, it became a dedicated hard-drive.

And so this massive drive of music is now entombed in my car. I can’t use the Alpine to select tracks because there are too many of them, and I can’t unplug the iPod, so the thing is set permanently on shuffle, which I never used very often before. The way the Alpine is set up, it announces the name of the tune but not the act, and though my wife, who is an interface wizard by trade, insists I can reset it, I am so lazy it will probably remain that way. I  also think I can toggle shuffle on and off, which creates an interesting balance of choice and randomness, but I havent gotten around to sussing that either.

The truth is that, finally, I now truly love my iPod: this half-comatose, randomized, garbled music server on life support. People talk about how shuffle turns their iPods into personal radio stations, but the “personal” thing doesn’t really apply to my situation. Half the time I have no idea what the music is, and a lot of the time it just puzzles me. Because I scarfed down all these mp3s for all sorts of contradictory and compulsive reasons—the rarity of the files, recommendations from only half-trustworthy friends, my belief that it really was time to familiarize my self with Alfred Schnittke’s concerti and Kemialliset Ystavat—I am listening to the criteria that structure my listening as much as I am listening to music I like. I don’t even hear the music as “mine.” An entity named “Erik Davis” created this playlist, but he’s not the same guy who listens to it—he is a more impish and adventurous parallel self who likes curve balls and delirious genre juxtapositions but often mistakes shit for shinola. Though I leavened the mix with just enough Big Star and Beach Boys to give me the occasional touch-down into the familiar, I am far from  achieving the masturbatory ideal that the “personal radio” implies. It is more like a transpersonal radio station, created by myself but also by some vaguely sadistic cyborg zombie who is plugged into a great ghost archive, the musical equivalent of Cocteau’s radio in Orphée, spewing esoteric morsels.

Of course, when faced with some screeching mumble, I can always push the advance button. But I don’t. I am so fascinated  with this weird 21st century listening environment that I resist pressing the button the way I resist fidgeting in meditation. In Zen they warn you about the perils of picking and choosing. Sometimes its better just to sit back in your little petroleum-fueled ice-pac pod and take it in. Sometimes its better just to face the music.