Twenty years ago this weekend, Apple launched the original, iconic iPod. Six years later, I was gifted my first and only version of the device: a third-generation iPod Nano, fit with a square screen, a click wheel and an engraving on the back: “Sofia Barrett, Happy 11th Birthday.”
By that time, the iPod line had begun its long decline from relevance. Apple had already introduced the iPhone, which would become the centerpiece of its ecosystem of products, and catapult it toward being the most valuable tech company in the world. But for the next five years — a key part of my teenage life — the iPod helped shape my relationship with music and technology. If the iPod was a gateway for many customers into Apple’s hardware and software products, it was also an early gateway for me into a type of consumption that we take for granted online: a seemingly limitless amount of content, available the moment you want it at the tap of a button, often for less than it cost in the analog era. (Though, as a teenager with no job, I still asked my parents for their credit cards to buy songs like “Fergalicious” and “Hot N Cold” for $1.29 a piece.)
Sure, my generation had always been able to take their music with them — in my case, starting with using my parents’ portable CD player in elementary school — but the iPod took that to another level. It was more transportable, came in pretty colors and made it easy to listen to far more artists at a time. But the next generation of music listening also changed how I thought about the music. I found myself caring far too much about iTunes data showing when an album was released, what genre it was classified as, and how many times I replayed each track. My music taste and enjoyment was all at once simplified into data points.
As I started to use my iPod and iTunes daily, the data helped me understand my listening habits. On my iPod, I kept an eye on the Recently Played and Top Rated playlists that came pre-programmed. On iTunes, I used every data column at my disposal: last played, date added, number of skips, and release date. It was concerning how much I parsed my enjoyment of Rihanna’s “Disturbia” into numbers as opposed to how ‘danceable’ it was. My entire music listening experience felt gamified — sometimes quite literally, in the form of the ‘Music Quiz’ game on my iPod — which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was curating my own experience, listening to the artists I wanted, on my own terms.