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.