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Looking At The Perfect Thing

Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness

by Jeff Clutterbuck

However, the mindset of the majority of the music industry, along with the advent of new technology, is killing off album-driven music. I just hope the decline reverses its course before my kids eventually do end up asking me, "Dad, what was an album?" --What Was An Album?”

I wrote those words roughly a year and a half ago. Funny how a little bit of time can change one’s views.

Steven Levy currently is the senior editor and the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek. His career has covered a great deal of the PC Revolution, and much of his writings revolve around the various aspects of “technology.” For this book, Levy was given tremendous resources by Apple, including contacts to the many individuals involved with the creation of the iPod. These resources bolstered his material, which included articles and interviews.

The question you’re probably asking yourself is; “Why is this guy talking about a tech writer’s book on a music review site?” The answer should come as no surprise. Levy’s book, The Perfect Thing, focuses on the iPod.

The iPod. It is ubiquitous, universal and revolutionary. That cigarette-box sized shiny computer has completely changed the way our culture thinks about and listens to music. Try and deny it if you must, but a simple walk through a mall or on a street reveals hundreds, even thousands, of white-eared individuals.

As a fan of music, one cannot help but pay attention to the iPod scene; it holds the future in its hand. One need look no further than the iPod to find out why the CD age is pretty much over and why the seemingly limitless potential of the digital music age excites.

Levy takes great pains to detail the ordeal of how the iPod was created and adds detail about other aspects of the industry. His tales about conversations with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are inherently fascinating due to the stature of the participants, but they are not what The Perfect Thing is all about. Nor is the history of Sony’s Walkman Player, or Apple’s financial situation in 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to the company. At the core, The Perfect Thing attempts to express why the iPod is what it is, and what that search means for you and me.

When I wrote my minuscule treatise on the state of the album, I was genuinely worried about the prospects of the future. At the time, I had limited myself in what I would listen to; albums like SMiLE were the absolute pinnacle of musical expression in my eyes. The iPod, DualDisc etc., while far from being blights upon society, threatened my own views on what music was and what it could be.

The concept of “Shuffle” would seem from the outside to be extraordinarily simple. It existed on CD players before the iPod, and existed on other MP3 players as well. Yet that concept is something that I’ve come to understand the importance of, and Levy makes it a key foundation of The Perfect Thing.

Today’s young music consumer does not want the same things that their parents did. Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side Of The Moon have no place anymore, in terms of influencing the present, and album statements are pretty much a think of the past. That is not to say art is not being made, but it’s becoming less about the entire work and more about the pieces, and there just don’t seem to be as many Beatles and Pink Floyds anymore. Maybe that was to be expected; demand has changed and music has changed along with it.

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This is where “shuffle” comes in. These days any person with an iPod has limitless potential for their music collections; you can arrange it in any order you wish, you can change the ebb and flow of albums that remained static for so long, or one can simply just sit back and experience everything. My iPod can present me with Elton John, Megadeth, Chopin and by Joni Mitchell. The mere fact I can do all this revitalizes my entire collection.

There’s a sense of excitement and re-discovery. Ever since I have begun to “shuffle” more, there have been songs and artists that I have ended up enjoying tremendously, that I otherwise might not have given the time of day to because I never “felt” like listening to them. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, songs from completely different albums and completely different artists somehow come together to form a cohesive piece, or idea. It’s new and unique every single time.

As Levy puts it, there is a “demand for choice.” With massive hard drive sizes, there is practically no limit to the music one can have available at the fingertips. There is genuine pride in one’s collection; it defines you as a person. I know I am intensely proud of my 70+ GB on my iPod -- does that make me a music elitist? Maybe to a degree, but it’s the same concept as wearing different clothes, or driving a different kind of car. As a culture we can define ourselves through our music because of the iPod’s popularity. I highly doubt that the Zune inspires such slavish devotion, and I know for a fact it lacks the gravitas of being a status symbol.

What Levy does is add respectability to this relatively simple device. To the cynical eye, it’s a white box that plays music (and TV and movies, but those are secondary issues). Yet our culture has deemed it more than that. It has become the primary mode of how people play music that demands respect. The music industry still doesn’t get it, and were it up to them we most likely would still be faced with the choice of paying 16 bucks for a CD or doing without. Therein lies another crucial piece of the iPod puzzle; it represents a disconnect between those in the know and those on the outs. The goal of both parties should be to meet somewhere in the middle, because that is where the most benefit for the music listener is to be had.

To many, an article like this is pointless. It’s just a bloody music player, you treat it like it’s the Holy Grail, I hear some of you say. To a degree, I expressed the same sentiments while reading certain portions of The Perfect Thing; it seemed like Levy was piling it on a little thick. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with him. Music means a whole lot to me, as it does to many others, and there are times when a song scrolls across the iPod screen and the moment just seems perfect, as Levy would say. What exactly is wrong with wanting that?

You’ll love this book. I certainly did.




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