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The Devil Wears iPod

By Fay Jacobs


Fay Jacobs

I love my iPod, even though I'm not what the electronics industry calls an "early adopter." Early adopters are those eager beavers who fiddle with new inventions before anybody else. Early adopters (EAs) bought CD players when the rest of us were still rewinding cassette tape spools with our pinky fingers.

I'm a tardy adopter. If I'd lived in the 19th century, I would have been reading Jane Austen by candlelight long after everyone else had gas, if you'll excuse the expression. I'm still wary of Halogen lights, wireless and digital thermometers (you want to put that where?).

Which is why I'm astounded that I purchased, programmed and actually use an iPod. And which is also why, as I drove to New York last weekend, trying to get my iPod to play through my car radio, I recognized irony when it assaulted me in the ears.

Where It Started
Back when Edison invented the stylus to play music on tinfoil cylinders, early adopters tried out these tinfoil phonographs. When Edison's cylinder gave way to shellac discs, the record player was born. Between Edison's records and Marconi's radio, a beautiful relationship grew.

Of course, the sound was awful. Jelly Roll Morton and Enrico Caruso came through with radio static and screechy needle skips on the 78 revolutions-per-minute records. Eventually, those sneaky early adopters got wind of 33-1/3 rpm records and the first major format war ignited.

Did you know that in 1940 audio pioneer David Sarnoff installed the first secret recording device in the White House? It took another 34 years to see the error in that plan. Meanwhile, 33s begat 45s and the classic long-playing record, or LP, triumphed.

I came along in 1948 and by the late 50s wanted my very own record player. I can still see that green vinyl-covered box with a flip-up lid. Inside was a turntable, an arm with a diamond needle and a clip for that little round plug to stick into 45s to keep them from becoming Sputniks. Over the next decade I listened to my first Broadway shows, The Kingston Trio, and the ubiquitous TV stars cutting records, like Richard Chamberlain Sings! He really didn't, but 12 year olds didn't care.

I practically wore out my LP of My Fair Lady starring Julie Andrews. That should have been a parental early warning. I really, really, really wanted Julie to be my best friend, talked about her incessantly and coveted her butch haircut.

Early adopters forged on: Hi Fidelity, FM Radio (no static!) and the new technology called stereo. Nuclear families sat in the middle of living rooms marveling at bongo drum sounds flipping from right speaker to left. Dean Martin crooned That's Amore, on speakers the size of restaurant dumpsters.

Take Your Music With You!
By 1966 EAs brought us new 8-track tapes. The sound quality stank and the tapes hiccupped every time they changed tracks, usually mid-song. But heck, you could take your music with you in the car!

I finally capitulated and got an 8-track player to listen to Sgt. Pepper while sipping Mateus wine and enjoying the aroma of wafting…um, incense in the dorm.

Dammit, my 8-track was still virginal when those vile early adopters diddled with cassette tapes. You could fast forward or reverse them and the sound was better. So everybody had to dump their 8-track players (or shove adapters into them) and switch formats again. By this time I had 300 albums but they were the same 100 releases purchased in three different formats. I still have all three versions of Carol King's Tapestry someplace.

Actually, cassettes held the public's attention for a long time. They hissed less than 8-tracks but the sound on the radio, in the car, or on the home stereo was merely good enough.

Then, Land Ho! In the early 80s, technology and early adopters collided in their quest for perfection, touting the Compact Disk - a digital technology virtually eliminating tape hiss, squeaks, needle skips, and all the other hum, buzz and static we've enjoyed through the ages.

Perfect sound. Of course, I didn't buy a CD player until years later when I spilled a Pina Colada into my cassette carrying case and ruined all my 80s music - which, in hindsight, was not the tragedy I thought it was at the time.

So I purchased my music for the fourth time, but got smart, joining six record, I mean music clubs. I'd get five free CDs with each membership, plus pay for the required two more CDs at regular price simultaneously, thereafter quitting lickety-split. For the record, no pun intended, I did not replace ABBA or CATS.

I Buy an iPod
Which brings me to the hell that those doggone early adopters have unleashed this time. Peer pressure finally convinced me I needed an iPod to carry with me the entire contents of my CD cabinet - which, by the way, was pretty empty, since I threw away all my bulky VHS tapes in favor of slim DVDs, requiring me to buy back my favorites yet again.

As for the iPod, I love it. Following three bleary days at the Dell computer, every CD I own is digitally stockpiled in the thing. If I trusted technology, which I do not, I could just throw away all those CDs and reclaim shelf space for the photo albums I refuse to convert to digital slide shows.

So as I headed up the Jersey Turnpike last weekend, I tried to enjoy selections from my entire iPodded music library played through my car radio. I had a gizmo supposed to play my iPod via wireless magic by tuning in a local radio station. What I got was barely audible Dixie Chicks along with some hideous 1960s AM radio static. Worse, the radio errantly drifted to some God Squad station railing about "ho-mo-sex-iality." Please, I'd rather listen to CATS.

When we spied a Bed, Bath & Beyond, we stopped to buy a tiny speaker system for Mr. iPod so we could turn off the squawking car radio.

Down the highway we went, unwrapped the little woofers and tweeters and discovered that the whole damn thing was made of flimsy plastic, and get this, Mr. Thomas Alva Edison - the speakers were, ta da, TIN FOIL.. And it sounded like it, too.

What comes around goes around. What will those zany early adopters think of next! Wouldn't it be ridiculous if they tried to get us to give up our 54-inch TVs for 2.5 inch Podcasts? Naw, that's just way too absurd...
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Fay Jacobs, a native New Yorker, spent 30 years in the Washington, DC area working in journalism, theater and public relations. She has contributed feature stories and columns to such publications as The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Bay Magazine, The Washington Blade, The Wilmington News Journal, Delaware Beach Life and more.
Since 1995 she has been a regular columnist for Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, and won the national 1997 Vice Versa Award for excellence. Her writing is also included in the 1998 Alyson Publications' anthology Beginnings. Her columns are collected in the recently issued book, As I Lay Frying: a Rehoboth Beach memoir.
She and Bonnie, her partner of 22 years, relocated to Rehoboth Beach, DE in 1999. They have two Miniature Schnauzers and a riding lawn mower.

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