I remember the first time I saw an iPod. I was 13 and on a coach to who knows where – Longleat, maybe, or Chessington World of Adventures – on a school trip. It was pink, and belonged to my best friend.
Listening to music had previously been either a solitary or a collective experience, but now, shared between two, an earphone each, it was thrillingly conspiratorial. Never mind that my friend and I had wildly divergent music tastes; I expect we met somewhere in the middle with Queen, say, or McFly. (Incidentally, my friend tells me she still has a notebook in which, on the same trip, we wrote stories about falling in love with each of the latter’s band members. See, I’ve always written about what the tall, funny South African termed my “shitty love life”.)
Reading my colleague Tom Gatti’s farewell to the iPod (Apple has discontinued it) in last week’s magazine caused me to reflect on my own experience of listening, watching, owning. It has been many years since I passed on my last iPod – a chunky Video on which I never watched videos – to a friend, but I remain wedded to my iTunes library. Rather than pay for streaming, I resolutely buy albums, putting my money behind the artists I love. And they are always albums. I don’t allow myself to listen only to the songs I am first drawn to: an album must be allowed to grow up around them. Of course, these days my new albums are collections of M4A files rather than physical discs – though it has only been a few years since my dad stopped buying me CDs for Christmas, selected from the music press’s best albums of the year lists. But there remain relics of the days of painstakingly burning CDs to my laptop: band names spelled and styled multiple ways (I have, for example, both “Florence & the Machine” and “Florence + The Machine”); albums forever lost in the black hole of “Various Artists”; songs that can’t be synced because they’re “not authorised for use on this computer”.
Such purchases may be considered retro behaviour, but at least they’re all held on a modern(ish) smartphone. My DVD collection, on the other hand, has been a source of bemusement among friends for years now. The hours I once spent browsing the “three for £20” aisles at HMV are now put in at the charity shops of Holloway Road: gentle afternoons tracing my fingertips over rows of neglected films. I buy them new, too, Best Picture Oscar battles replayed on my shelves: Three Billboards…, 20th Century Women, Parasite.
I sidestep the interminable indecision of streaming and select my entertainment from a pleasingly contained collection of my best-loved: American Beauty, Thirteen Days, Almost Famous, Children of Men, The Silence of the Lambs (this last one incurred a lifetime ban from film selection at teenage sleepovers). There’s the perfect sick-day duet of Erin Brockovich and When Harry Met Sally…, and Indiana Jones and the Clint Eastwood back catalogue await a rainy weekend. I have lost count of the times I have imploringly pressed The Handmaiden or Headhunters on a friend, only to be told they don’t have anything with which to play a disc. And it’s not just films: who needs Netflix when you have the holy trinity of This Life, Bodies and Prime Suspect in literal boxset form?
I do all of this not out of any high-minded principles about creator rights, but because the finite is comforting in a world of unending choice. And because there is something of my identity stored in those boxes, in those long-ago-burned CDs. I need there to be evidence, a demarcation of where my taste begins and ends in order for it to feel graspable, real. It is too vital to be left to an algorithm’s understanding of what I might like. Handing someone my phone with iTunes open or standing by while they browse my DVDs feels akin to saying: this is who I am.
Every time I move flat, faced with the prospect of having to pile hundreds of DVDs into boxes, I resolve to return them to the charity shops from whence they came. And, every time, I can’t quite bring myself to do it. I suppose I’m holding out for the day the DVD player is held in as high esteem as the turntable.
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control