When I heard that Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters won the album of the year Grammy, I was inspired to revisit two musicians that I’ve always admired more than truly enjoyed. I interested was piqued further after reading Ben Ratliff’s thoughtful remarks about River and the whole idea of a jazz album winning such a high-profile award. Alas, the morning of the Grammy awards my iPod bricked. It now feebly alternates between the Apple logo and an image of a sick iPod, and now my iMac wants nothing to do with it. Without an iPod I can’t buy anything on iTunes because my iMac’s hard drive is filled, so I’ve reached the physical limits of my music collection. I can’t buy anything new.
I have another iPod, a 2 gig Nano I use almost exclusively for running, using the Nike + system to track my runs. But I have something like 3,000 songs in my collection, so using the Nano as my primary iPod requires some tiresome song management, which is precisely why I continued using my old 40 gig click wheel. Even though I couldn’t take it out in public without a slight sense of shame at its monochromatic screen and bulky profile, I kind of liked the click wheel model: it was the last iPod with a perfectly proportioned interface. It’s still the most elegant iPod.
Of course, a bricked iPod means a trip to the Apple store for a shiny new iPod Touch, but Apple’s technology is temporarily ahead of itself. With the new 32 gig flash drive the iPod Touch finally has a practical storage capacity, but the new model is $500 and history shows that Apple lowers its prices after the initial buyer frenzy. As cool as the Touch is, I’m resentful about my click wheel bricking almost three years to the day after I purchased it. With its complex interface and feature overload, how long will a Touch last?
I wonder how many people still maintain iPod playlists a year or two after purchase. I did, but lately I’ve gotten lazy and relied on the shuffle feature and a manual free-association trip through my collection. Ironically, my iPod ceased working during a period in which I was consciously trying to use it regularly again. I hadn’t grown bored with the unit itself; I’d grown bored with my music. That’s why I’ve lost interest in selecting songs to go on my Nano and I haven’t made a playlist in a long time. The same phenomenon has occurred in iPhoto. I can’t remember the last time we published a photo album online.
Call me a gullible Mac Head, but I suspect that a new iPod will renew my enthusiasm for my music collection, just as a new iMac–another major purchase I need to make very soon–will revive my interest in digital photography. Apple detractors claim, with some justification, that the company’s marketing strategy is mostly about making people junk their perfectly functional iPods and iMacs for incrementally better models. And yet I wonder if new technologies have a defamiliarization effect, making our old familiar content strange enough to force us to look at it again, as if we were seeing it for the first time. The Touch interface is genuinely new, and we’ll be seeing a lot of that sort of thing in future computing devices, but for the most part the critics are right when they charge Apple’s latest releases are more eye candy than anything substantively new. When genres become more and more dependent on the technologies of their mediums, they run the risk of suffering from the same obsolescence as the underlying technology. We cease to see (or hear) cultural objects very clearly. Maybe from time to time we need to change the window through which we access our content.
I just hope that the price of the 32 gig iPod Touch comes down before Jason Moran releases a new album, or I don’t know what I’m going to do.
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