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Tuning Out

iPod junkies dare to pull the earplugs

By Gabriel Sherman

ON A recent train commute to work, I missed my stop. I watched with helpless misery as the doors shut and the train whisked me away against my will. Murmurs of frustration degenerated into self-loathing expletives. I hadn't simply spaced out; I had a much more serious problem.

In the past year, I had grown increasingly numb to my surroundings, often oblivious to the world around me, trapped in a self-imposed bubble. My detachment stemmed from the twin white earplugs of my iPod, which in recent months had burrowed their way deep into my ears—and my psyche. A device, the size of a pack of Marlboros, had come to dominate my daily existence. On the train that morning, I decided enough was enough. I needed a break from the hand-held music contraption that had taken over my life.

Looking back, the consequences of my iPod affliction ranged from the mildly comedic (trying to switch songs as I deftly doused my thigh with scalding hot coffee) to the potentially tragic (not hearing the UPS truck careening toward me). Almost anywhere I went, I plugged in and tuned out. Need cash from the ATM? The Shins' melodic "New Slang" would accompany me. Picking up my laundry at the Wash and Fold? Rachael Yamagata's sultry swooning. My music even joined me in the bathroom each morning before work (nothing like Jack White's angular guitar riffs to really get things moving).

But my iPod addiction harbored a darker, more disturbing side. With more than 1,000 songs at my thumb tip, I could satisfy any desire, any time. My iPod was like a drug. I lived in my own self-imagined movie, instantly tailoring the soundtrack to fit or inspire my emotions. Some days unfolded languidly, similar to a Wes Anderson film, filled with nostalgic post-punk songs and the occasional Nico track (yes, Nico).

Other times, I blasted on the treadmill at the gym to thumping techno beats. This winter, after a girl I briefly dated abruptly announced that she was "still in love with her ex-boyfriend," I spent the night with Conor Oberst's wallowing voice on repeat. More recently, when an evening with romantic overtones ended on a positive note, I boozily left the bar amplified by the hopeful lyrics of Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. The music lent some kind of dramatic import to what I was experiencing. Without it, I felt empty. Mostly, I now realize, it just made my days feel like some cheesy Dawson's Creek episode.

It wasn't always this way. I bought my iPod two years ago, when I had long forgotten what a pleasure portable music could be. My Walkman had been retired some time around 1994, along with my mixtapes. Minidiscs never caught on. And remember when hand-held CD players would skip if they were jostled more than a hair? With my new iPod, I quickly loaded up all my music and then some, and was off and running. Well, listening. It was nirvana.

Then, a few months ago, I watched with horror as my iPod tumbled out of my hands and broke open. Within days, I assuaged the withdrawal by replacing my clunky 10-gigabyte iPod dinosaur with one of those stylish new Mini models. I had no excuse not to take it everywhere. And I did. I acquired the telltale signs of an addict. Just before leaving places, I fidgeted nervously while contemplating what song I would queue up. And on those days that my iPod battery ran out of juice, I became irritable.

I'm not the only one suffering from iPod fatigue. At a recent barbecue, a graphic designer told me she too needed a break from her iPod. "The other day, I was reading some New Yorker article about the 82nd Airborne Division and the Iraq war and listening to something really depressing," she said. "It was all just too much. The music, the soldiers—something had to give. I just had to turn the music off."

I'm about a week into my post-iPod reformation. Quitting cold turkey has been difficult, and I've certainly had my lapses. But I'm much happier now. With my earphones in, I had become deaf to the orchestra playing around me.


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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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