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Of iPods and Dirty Underwear

The download on musical downloads in the age of 60-gig beasts.

By 8.14.06

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This article appears in the July/August 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

BEHOLD MY BELOVED iPod -- constant companion! Battery-charged bulwark against bridge-and-tunnel boredom!

Engraved on its silver gleaming backside with my e-mail address and the very necessary words REWARD IF RETURNED, I now find the mere act of walking without this small, once unimaginable machine... well, small and unimaginable. And mine is just the modest 20-gigabyte model, mind you, not the unruly 60-gig beast for which I could have splurged if I were a more ostentatiously vulgar, or richer, man.

So now what the hell should I listen to? Round and round the finger goes, and where it stops, only I know, or don't -- and that's the whole problem in a nutshell, really. My iPod tells me I currently have 4,336 songs loaded into it, enough to provide 40 days of continuous, non-repeat play, and that I still haven't used up half its overall storage capacity.

Not that I've exhausted my underlying CD collection, on which I stage the periodic, furtive raids that keep my downloading habit in business. Not even close. Hell, the Beatles collection alone -- some 400 neatly arranged discs that bespeak a frighteningly advanced obsessive-compulsive disorder, the (statutorily nebulous) pursuit of Every Little Thing the lads ever recorded, released and unreleased, live and in the studio -- would totally overwhelm the little bugger, game as she is. And such a downloading nightmare it would be! Can you imagine weeding out the overlapping material from Ultra Rare Trax Volume 5 and Unsurpassed Masters Volume 7? Or manually typing in the track info that fails to appear (e.g., "Hey Jude [Take 7]") because iTunes, the iPod's desktop operating system, also known as "The Benevolent Mothership," gets finicky about bootlegs?

Fact is, I've collected so many bloody CDs, so much audio content -- back when I started, we quaintly called it "music" -- that even if I spent the rest of my life doing nothing but listening to it all, devotedly, without repeating a single song, I would surely die before completing the task. The same is effectively true for my iPod. Somewhere along the line, without my noticing it, the ethos that (I thought) was fueling my scrupulous transfers of material from The Collection to The Unit -- This would be nice to have in there -- resulted in a massive overload, not of the unit's capacity to store it all, but of my own to enjoy it: So now what the hell should I listen to?

This shocking paralysis -- at what was supposed to be the precise moment of my emancipation, when several thousand songs are mine to savor, and I can't choose a single freaking one -- exposes the real ethos driving me, and all other iPod owners, in the downloading frenzy we keep up, beyond all rational utility: What would look cool on an iPod? So we scrupulously endeavor to ensure our fabulous portable jukeboxes, whether searched by Artist, Album, or Genre, will reflect the one trait we imagine any collection of music should boast, above all others: eclecticism. "Wow, you've sure got eclectic tastes!" we imagine others will say, admiringly, or: "What an eclectic collection!"

So let's get the Beatles' entire released canon in there, for starters and as a matter of Proper Respect, and a smattering of the bootlegs -- both live and in-the-studio stuff -- just to serve notice on my iPod's Imaginary Inspectors, those exacting little bastards, that I'm a serious collector!

And let's throw some Stones in there, so they know I can get down and dirty, too, that it's not all "Lucy in the Sky" with me. In fact, we'll need the full gamut of British rock royalty -- the Who, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, Van Morrison -- and a smattering...oh, the artful smatterings!... of bootleg material for each, so they'll know I'm not some Total Tool who only buys the greatest hits packages, or even the full studio albums, including the obscure ones, but that I dig deep! And that I am well connected enough to secure unreleased material for even the most obscure artists! Need the acoustic studio demos for "Astral Weeks"? Gotcha covered, buddy! Not that I'm planning on actually listening to them anytime soon, but...

Yes! Soon we've got Classic Rock fully represented, along with Oldies, '70s Disco, Classic Funk (can't show your iFace in iPublic without some James Brown, my man, and Stevie Wonder's Talking Book and Innervisions -- the greatest hits is probably permissible there), and the Acceptable '80s Music (Talking Heads, Madonna, Stevie Ray Vaughn).

And how could I have forgotten? We need some jazz! How can I consider myself "eclectic" if I don't have some jazz on there? Of course, I don't actually listen to jazz, and I wouldn't know my Coltrane from my Bird, my Miles from my Mingus, but -- better have some of each! Thank God my fraternity brother burned me those discs! Hooked a brother up, he did!

And some classical. Yes! But which? Doesn't matter. Throw some Bach on there and call it a day. The people you care about impressing -- other iPod owners, or wannabe owners -- aren't going to notice if Grieg, Gorecki, or Glass aren't as Fully Represented as the Beatles and the Elvises (Presley -- greatest hits and live in Hawaii -- and Costello -- Get Happy!! and Imperial Bedroom).

THOUGHTOUT THE GREAT downloading frenzy, the same question recurs: What would look cool on an iPod? In downloading a given album, should I transfer the whole thing, or just the songs I like? Wouldn't the Imaginary Inspectors see that I... skipped a song... on Sticky Fingers? Better to enter the whole thing in there. What the hell! You've got another ten gigabytes still to play with. And if you need more space later, you can discreetly delete the Bach -- Classical is always the first to go -- or just swallow the extra cash and buy the 60-gig beast, which, truth be told, you should have splurged for when you had the chance.

When it's all done, you've spent a massive amount of time trying to impress other people with the content entered into a device that is intended solely for your own, solitary use. You've catered to the same fears your mother used to stoke, with her exhortations for you to live clean: What if you are hit by a bus, found splayed across Fifth Avenue, a lifeless heap with a sterling resume... and the cops find you're wearing dirty underwear? Or that your iPod, still lovingly clutched in your lifeless hand, had no Coltrane on it?

That moment may never come -- but what if it does? Odds are, you'll have been standing where you weren't supposed to, right in the middle of traffic, as the bus struggles, unsuccessfully, to screech to a stop, your finger going round and round, in the fruitless service of helping you to answer the question: So now what the hell should I listen to?

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About the Author

James Rosen is a White House and State Department correspondent for Fox News.