After Apple discontinued the iPod Classic in September, there were reports the devices were selling for $1,000 or more on eBay. That’s fine, but I’ll never sell my first iPod. Not for $1,000, not for $100,000. Not for all the Apple Watch Editions in the world.
I still listen to the songs on my iPod, but that’s not why I wouldn’t sell it. I’ll never sell it because my iPod is no longer a musical player; it’s now the best-preserved evidence of my formative years — an artifact of who I was, contained in 40,000 MP3s and protected by an indestructible white plastic shell.
I got mine the year I got braces, the summer before my junior year at Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif. This is the same Cupertino where the original iPod was designed by a team of engineers at Apple’s headquarters in 2001, and so as soon as the first edition hit the market, iPods flooded my high school campus. My classmates were the children of Silicon Valley’s engineers and tech workers. Most of those parents couldn’t resist springing for a game-changing piece of technology — even if it was so their kid could listen to cringeworthy bands like Dashboard Confessional.
And so, at our school, wearing Apple’s signature white earbuds under your hoodie became just as fashionable as donning $200 Uggs.
Because both of my parents were PC owners, I patiently waited until Steve Jobs gave in and made iTunes fully compatible with Windows. In July 2004, Apple released its 4th Generation Classic iPod, complete with a smooth, buttonless click wheel. The following month, my dad got me one for my 16th birthday.
My dad didn’t wrap the gift, mostly because it needed no decoration. At the time, Apple’s famous iPod advertisements, starring dancing black silhouettes, were everywhere. You’d see them on TV, lining the billboards down Highway 101 — I even saw a couple of Halloween costumes. They were also on the packaging of the iPod itself, which was a colorful cardboard cube. You slipped the thin cardboard casing off the top, and the box opened like a book. You’d see an all-white interior, save for the one declaration in gray Myriad type: “Designed by Apple in California.” It was all so obsessively put together that, in unwrapping it, you felt like you were taking part in a special event, long before “unboxing” became a YouTube phenomenon.
Prior to my first iPod, my main means for private listening was a clunky Sony Discman that allowed for one album at a time. Family trips were a chance to memorize the last three CDs I had bought. Now I had 12 hours worth of music — both Robert Plant and Nick Lachey — at the ready, the twirl of a finger tuning out the world. After setting up my iPod, I placed a hot pink rubber skin over it, and tucked it in the kangaroo pocket of my hoodie. It rarely moved from that spot.
I immediately went to work filling up the iPod’s 40GB, dismantling the considerable collection of CDs that I’d bought at my local Sam Goody and loading them into my home computer. I added them in order of the musical phases I’d gone through thus far: First came my Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees. Then Eminem, Sublime, Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Co. And finally, the Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Simon and Garfunkel. And, of course, there was my embarrassingly large Dave Matthews Band CD collection.
As I grew, so did my musical tastes, and thus my library. It was there to store “Haiti,” the first Arcade Fire track I ever listened to from a burned CD my boyfriend gave me. It was there to accommodate my Shins pirating cram, the night after I’d heard “New Slang” in the “Garden State” soundtrack. It put up with hours of Taking Back Sunday I’d listen to after arguments with my parents. It was a musical security blanket, a way to disappear from a turbulent home life or busy high school schedule by stuffing in my earbuds and tuning out.
By the time I went to college, my appetite for music was insatiable. My mom bought me a first-generation iPod Shuffle (the one that looked like a pregnancy test) as a graduation gift. As I began discovering and downloading albums of new artists I liked, I used that, instead, to switch out playlists and listen to my latest favorites. My iPod was moved to the speaker dock that my grandma bought me for Christmas one year. Though I’d given up on plugging it into my computer, I still played it a lot in my dorm room, and eventually the shabby beach house I lived in with my friends. Soon enough, laptop speakers got bigger and better, and smartphones became searchable, and my friends’ equipment made it irrelevant.
My trusty iPod, complete with its Altec Lansing speakers. Photo by Joe Sullivan.
Today, the iPod sits in my apartment, still in that speaker dock, ready to play at a twirl-and-click’s notice. Its battery can’t hold a charge, but as long as it’s plugged in it works just as well as the day I bought it. Whenever I put it on shuffle, I travel down a strange tunnel of nostalgia in which I’m both horrified at what I loved, and also enchanted with memories of being young and stupid and able to take Rage Against the Machine seriously. Sometimes I stop what I’m doing and relive a moment — a drive to the beach with my friends, the homecoming dance, a late night study session; other times I can’t stand more than four seconds of a track. But even when I don’t like what I’m hearing, I enjoy being reminded of my previous self. It’s revealing and humbling all at once.
Younger generations are now growing up with cheap and accessible streaming services like Spotify and Rdio. That’s a pretty sweet exchange, considering what we iPod owners had to pay.
But as many music-lovers have said before me — there are simple, unmatchable joys of a box that keeps your music forever. Even if it is preserving obnoxiously emo songs like “Carve Your Heart Out Yourself.”