Everything that getaway driver Baby – the main character in Edgar Wright’s new movie Baby Driver – does revolves around his iPods. He’s got about 50 of them, one for each of his moods – including a bejewelled pink iPod Mini – and keeps them all in his hoodie, along with a similar number of sunglasses. He refuses to do a job without one; he scrolls back through tracks when he misses a beat, so that heists can be timed to certain points of a song; and when he’s fleeing instant, certain, bloody death, he drops his iPod and immediately goes back to fetch it.
It’s pitched in the film as being a Very Cool Thing indeed. He’s a “You don’t talk much, do you?” 1970s crime cinema throwback cut with 2017’s very own Manic Pixie Dream Boy. It also serves to hammer home the importance these little metal bricks had to a generation that barely remember a time before internet connection. In a flashback, a baby Baby is given an iPod for Christmas. The iPod is now so old, it’s possible to have a flashback where it’s the iPod that clearly lets you know you’re in ‘The Past’.
It couldn’t help but make me think: What was it ever like to not have every song you’ve ever known just a clickwheel away?
I remember when I first saw an iPod, the awe in the playground. A second-gen hip-flask-sized hunk of white plastic and glass. Someone told me it “could hold one million songs”. I looked down at my own off-white Alba USB-pen MP3 player with disgust. What could it hold? 30 songs? I wanted to throw it into the bushes. I felt ashamed.
Of course, “one million songs” turned out to be roughly 4,000 on the 20GB 2nd generation iPod, but that was still more music than many of us greasy, ecstatic barely-teens could comprehend. I knew about 100 songs total, and a fifth of them were by Limp Bizkit.
It’s weird seeing an iPod now, how obvious and simplistic it all feels. You mean I have to move my finger around a wheel? How does that make any sense? But the first time I had the chance to use that clickwheel myself, it felt familiar yet exciting. Something about the action – so tactile; so much movement for so little end – felt like years before, tiny-me, twisting radio knobs on my mum’s Astra, scrolling through the FM decimals trying to find a station in tune. It was satisfying, gratifying. And the clicking itself – a sound which now, 14 years later, sets my teeth on edge – only amped up the tension, like the first crackle and burst of static when you drop a needle on a record.
At the height of the online piracy boom, the iPod offered us the coolest filing cabinet known to man: When the iPod Mini came out in early 2004 – with its smaller size, brushed steel colourways, and dramatically lower price point – it became the great leveller. Now I had a silver Mini – the same one, if memory serves, that Rio Ferdinand owned – and thanks to the power of pirating-powerhouse Limewire, money was no longer required to get your hands on tracks. The internet truncated a process which might have taken our parents’ generation weeks. The ease at which you could load it up and type in, say, A Grand Don't Come for Free by The Streets or the entire back-catalogue of Taking Back Sunday or Dashboard Confessional, was only limited by the speed of your dial-up connection. In just 10 minutes, you could go from hearing a song on the radio to having that same song sat on your iPod, its ID3 tags edited to your particular in-house style (mine: “featuring” became “ft.” and everything – EVERYTHING – needed to have album art). This meant Rio Ferdinand couldn’t own more music than me, a gimpy 13-year-old boy.
The iPod developed our taste by allowing us to download every single thing we could imagine, and then whittle it down from there. I’d tumble down a Wikipedia hole and be downloading every track I could find. I had the back catalogues of all of the bands my dad spoke about, but also the “buzzy” subgenres that sprung-up just as quickly as they died away: Filling my iTunes with Buraka Som Sistema, Spank Rock, chillwave, and whatever else music blog aggregator Hype Machine convinced me was good; eventually devolving into endless, convoluted mash-ups of punk anthems and kids TV theme songs. It didn’t matter that much of it was utter toss; you had to kiss a few frogs to find a prince, right? Put all 18,311 songs on shuffle and simply skip the ones that don’t take your fancy. Who knows where you might land. Would you get ‘Jeremy’ by Pearl Jam or ‘Hey Nikki’ by Nikki S & Nyke? The iPod’s shuffle was the musical precursor to Tinder.
The album-release system lost its lustre throughout the ‘00s and the single track download took hold, accelerating the rate at which artists were chewed up and spat out for being unable to instantaneously come good on a hit record. But the iPod created far more music fans than it jaded. For me, the power was in its ground-up approach. I started with nothing and filled it up – with songs, with mixes, with memories – until it was finally, impossibly, full.
The iPod presented me with a task – Fill me up! – and when that final song was in place, the final drop in this whacking great hole, without a single megabyte of data left, there was only one thing left for me to do: start all over again. It was thrilling, seeing the full bar of memory at the bottom of my iTunes, and CTRL + Alt and Delete-ing every song I owned into oblivion. I’d rip it up and start again. Which songs would make the cut next time? I’d be more careful now, wiser in the five minutes since deletion, and wouldn’t add quite so many FLAC/lossless versions of classic drone albums rated 10.0 by Pitchfork. I would put something I actually liked on there instead. Which albums did I truly need there? What were the albums that defined me?
If I was a more pretentious man, I’d say deleting and refilling became a some kind of emotional growth/rebirth. In reality, I was 16 and still “discovering”; trawling music forums for meaning; an idiot kid in grey suburbia searching for something to make me feel a little interesting. (And when I was 16, this was mostly saying my favourite album was “definitely Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement”.)
Eventually, when my Nokia became a Samsung became an iPhone, I stopped using the iPod. I didn’t even put music on my new phone. I don’t even use Spotify, or other streaming services. It’s not just that I’m wary of their data-plan destroying powers, the services make me feel frozen by endless choice, rather than excited by it. I didn’t realise how much I missed my iPods until I watched Baby Driver: I miss the novelty of having an MP3 player separate from your phone. No buffering, no subscription charge, no Wi-Fi needed. But besides, it’s now so much harder now to get lost in a song when you half-expect the ding of a text message or the clang of a work email to ruin the vibe.
Could the iPod come back, like the vinyl record player or the Polaroid camera? Will Apple reissue the Mini for a new generation, one that wants things it can already have, but in a form that makes it more challenging to appreciate? Like old-school games consoles, there’s a quaint charm to the iPod while still retaining enough functionality as to be enjoyed without much fuss. But for me, more than that, there’s the collection aspect.
Nobody asks “What music are you into?” anymore. That’s a line for the chronically charmless, guaranteeing you the most boring conversation ever, as someone umms and ahhs and then says, “That’s so hard but I’d have to say: a bit of everything, really”. You go back to the iPod, however, and you have the ability to say: I’ll show you.
I miss this: uploading a song in there months, maybe years previous, and forgetting about it until it came on while I walked to work, hungover, on a cold morning in November, and being transported back to a beach in Mallorca two summers ago where I’d been rinsing it on repeat. It’s like finding a box of photos that you forgot about. That morning trudge turns into a warm skip, feet landing on the cracks in the pavement in time to the beat without you even realising.
I miss having music in my pocket. It’s all there on the internet on my phone too, sure, but I have to go and find it. I like that the iPod just had it. Like it was just there, waiting for the packed tube journey or a rare jog when you really needed to listen to Cuban Linx or whatever was in your heart, without ceremony. I hope I can find my silver sixth-gen iPod Classic under the cumulative mess of three house moves, because I need it back in my life.
(Main Image: Baby Driver still via AllStarPL)