Escape Pod

The iPod as safety prosthetic

As the most recently obsolete single-purpose music player, the clickwheel iPod plays a loaded dual role in Edgar Wright’s heist movie Baby Driver. Three years out of production, it’s already performing a nostalgic function akin to cassette tapes in Guardians of the Galaxy or vinyl records in The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s also cast as a Bondian gadget, a prosthesis that enables the hero Baby to nail the superhuman driving stunts that comprise the crux of the film’s action.

Baby relies on his collection of outdated iPods not only to work as a getaway driver, but to interface with the world during the more mundane lulls in his daily life. He has tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears caused by a car crash he survived as a child. Through flashbacks, the film heavily implies that he lives with a degree of post-traumatic stress disorder from the same incident, which killed both his parents. At the time of the crash, Baby was listening to his first iPod, an original 2001 model he received as a Christmas gift from his mother. The music from the device soothes his tinnitus, but the iPod itself acts as a totem, too: If he survived with his earbuds in during that seminal car crash, his earbuds will protect him through the many crashes he endures over the course of his job.

The hero of Baby Driver‘s iPods are more than comfort objects. For him — as for many others who use portable listening devices protectively — they’re environmental filters

Wright presents Baby as a character out of step with the rest of the contemporary, both in his disability and in how he manages it. He wears new Apple earpods equipped with a microphone that serves no utility plugged into his output-only iPod jack. He reads lips instead of listening to speech, which gives the impression to his cohorts that he is both mute and uncomprehending. He speaks little, but can recite the complex conversations that happen around him from memory. He doesn’t own a smartphone or a computer; he’s a cyborg who depends heavily on a single-use technology for insulation from the loud, chaotic, aggressive world in which he’s mired. Baby’s iPods are more than comfort objects. For him — as for many others who use portable listening devices protectively — they’re environmental filters, buffers that enable him to engage more safely with the world.

Apple stopped producing the iPod Classic in 2014 (the wifi–enabled iPod Touch is still available), but it lives on in a healthy aftermarket economy on resale sites like eBay. The first generation iPod Baby was listening to at the moment of his parents’ death now sells for thousands of dollars as a collectors’ item. But most clickwheel iPods are purchased for their use value, not their fetish value; a perfectly functional but aesthetically compromised Classic can fetch hundreds of dollars, without original packaging, for its 160 gigabyte hard drive, scratches and all.

With the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979, music listening became both portable and isolative, capable of dividing the listener from the environment. The Walkman Effect, first named in a 1984 Popular Music article, has been described variously as both a liberating and narcissistic force: The listener is alone in the music, but has power over what they hear and when they hear it. The iPod glamorized capsule listening in the early aughts to a degree Sony barely touched with its portable tape and CD players. In the mid-aughts, entire subway stops blared the iPod’s silhouette ads: black figures frozen in ecstatic dance poses against colorful backgrounds, the white lines of their headphones slicing through the composition. Music listening, a historically social activity, promised joy even in isolation. The isolation ended up being more of a draw than the joy.

Unlike the Walkman, which played one album or mixtape and had no room for spontaneous choice, the iPod offered the opportunity to play anything from a given record collection in any environment. Different songs could shield the listener from different situations; if you listened enough, you learned which music worked best to drown out the noise of a subway commute, what sounded good on an airplane, what evaporated the shouts of a fighting couple into distant haze. The breadth of musical options available on a single device enabled users to condition their emotional environments, to self-soothe or tune out hostile triggers.

The iPod’s design augmented its shielding power nearly as much as its hard drive capacity. Unlike the Walkman and brick-like early mp3 players, it fit even into pockets on women’s clothing; the 2004 iPod Mini, with its smaller chassis and its array of tropical colors, increasingly feminized the device. Unlike its cumbersome predecessors, the iPod, more than any other player, could feel like an extension of the body.

Apple’s hyper-visible white headphones, designed to pop from the figure more dramatically than the traditional tech cyphers of black and gray, became a fashion item as much as a utility. Instead of foam-covered over-ear headsets, which were prone to quick decay and sound bleed (not to mention ugly), Apple offered ergonomic earbuds designed to nestle into the body, more augmentation than addition. They introduced a new kind of social signaling, itself a gesture at privacy: Walking in public in headphones can feel like walking through the world behind armor. Just as the iPod itself is impermeable to interference, its listener deflects a degree of bothering that comes with passing through an urban or otherwise busily populated environment. When I worked as a street canvasser in the summer of 2008, my supervisor instructed us not to bother flagging down passersby wearing earbuds. It was too invasive, and besides, the odds of someone removing their headphones to speak to a stranger were low.

Music listening, a historically social activity, promised joy even in isolation. The isolation of the iPod’s silhouette ads ended up being more of a draw than the joy

This dynamic, likely an unintended consequence of Apple’s aesthetic innovations, has been exploited by women and others vulnerable to street harassment since the iPod saturated the mp3 market. “Half the time I wear headphones, there’s nothing playing,” writer and performer Rachel Pendergrass told writer Jaya Saxena for a 2016 Daily Dot feature on the imminent cultural ramifications of wireless headphones. “Sometimes, if my phone is off, I just ‘plug’ the headphones into my pocket. They give me at least a little bit of a barrier.” Another woman, Whitney Johnson, also said she used headphones as a social shield to profound effect: “It grew out of wearing them to listen to music on my commutes and realizing how much less I was bothered the days I had them on than when I didn’t.” An xoJane piece on catcalling from 2013 glibly names the effect “street harassment-canceling headphones.”

The protective effects of mass marketed portable music players linger even now that their progenitor, the iPod, has been taken off the market. In her Daily Dot piece, Saxena wonders what the increasing popularity of Bluetooth headphones and jackless smartphones will do to women who rely on wired earbuds as a social shield from aggressive contact. I wonder, too, how long the cultural memory of the iPod will enchant earbuds with the look of armor. When earbuds implied mp3 player, not cell phone, they painted the image of a person oblivious to anything but their chosen music. Now, the sight of headphones is more ambiguous. They tend to be plugged into smartphones, which themselves are openings to channels rife with harassment and unwanted contact. The iPod’s isolative effect made it an ideal cushion against the stresses of moving through the world in a vulnerable body.

“Using an iPod in the age of the smartphone almost feels like an act of meditation,” wrote Lindsay Zoladz in 2016. “I’m slowing down, tuning out, placing my life —  for the length of an album or even a single song —  in Do Not Disturb mode.” While some mp3 players boast FM capability or built-in speakers, the iPod’s supply line is simple and direct: you load mp3s onto the hard drive, and the mp3s play into your headphones. Nothing passes through the device that the user doesn’t put there. By design, it’s invulnerable to interference, a watertight isolation chamber ensuring informational privacy. No unsolicited recommendations pepper its low-res screen; no push notifications disrupt the music’s flow.

Apple offered ergonomic earbuds designed to nestle into the body, more augmentation than addition. They introduced a new kind of social signaling, itself a gesture at privacy

As Zoladz points out in an essay on the device’s use in Baby Driver, “phones don’t evoke feelings for Baby the way iPods do: A smartphone would make him too vulnerable to GPS, so he uses flip-phone burners.” Immune to potential surveillance, the iPod carries the benefit of portability without funneling user data to a corporate database. The iPod does not help advertisers get to know you, and it does not offer information to the government as to your whereabouts. Its opacity soothes the anxiety of a culture that feels constantly watched.

Though the iPod was initially advertised as a cornucopia of mp3s, and thus of choice (each generation’s ads included the number of potential songs that could fit on its hard drive), by now its disconnectedness serves instead as a limiter of choice. Everything is streaming; as Zoladz notes, to use an iPod is to permit yourself to choose from a broad but finite and individually tailored catalog. This, too, can temper anxiety; the iPod doesn’t open up into a seemingly boundless informational sphere, but into a set of information contoured by the user. The space inside the iPod is one you’ve decorated yourself. It’s not the whole city; it’s just your apartment. It’s not bugged, and no one else gets in unless you open the door yourself. The iPhone, meanwhile, can feel too much like an orifice into an interior life a user might rather guard. Twitter is populated with abusers who often have as much access to your notification screen as your friends. Where the iPhone offers an opening to an unpredictable and often hostile world, the iPod acts as a cocoon of your own making.

Unlike vinyl and other analog artifacts, the iPod has little in the way of a boutique consumer base — those who continue to use it do so in the knowledge that its increasing obsolescence may one day vanish their chosen portal to isolated music without warning. But the iPod offers something much more than listening capability. As Apple and other tech companies invest heavily in cloud-based media streaming and discreet wireless listening gear, they disinvest in the off-label uses of their products as survival tools for people in vulnerable social positions. The more jacked in we are, the more open we become to ambient abuse.

Sasha Geffen is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, an analysis of queerness and gender nonconformity in the past century of popular music. Their writing attends to the intersections of gender, pop culture, the body, and technology, and has been published in Artforum, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Boston, they now live in Colorado.