iPod and Apple’s ad campaign

Okay, though you might not know it by today’s iPod advertising, which mainly focuses on gaming and the newly embedded camera, to me the most iconic advertising Apple did with the iPod was when people danced all over the place in silhouettes against a monochromatic background.  Like this:

Let’s be clear about what is being emphasized here.  First, catchy music.  Music that you might not have known that well but are now thus tantalized to grab it for 99 cents. (For a list of music that’s been on iPod ads, go here.)  We all know that Apple, in this context, more or less functions as a both a hardware provider and a record label.  And their success with the iPod depended just as much on the musical content as it did with the device.

But lets talk about another point of focus Apple is honing, and it may or may not be meant to fake you out.

When I think of iPod commercials, I think of people dancing like crazy.  When I think of iPods in every day life, I imagine people on the subway in their little privacy bubble, usually sitting perfectly still (or maybe nodding their heads to the beat if they’re really feeling it).  There’s a little bit of hoodwinking going on here; the ad manages to make you think that a) it’s cool to dance like crazy with an iPod even though no one else might be able to hear the music, b) by watching the commercial with the silhouettes that we’re in a shared space where both you and the dancers can hear the music, and c) that iPods permit a completely physical experience in a scenario that really just isn’t.  Or is it?

Of course Apple isn’t completely pulling the wool over our eyes.  No one is being fooled here; I think they’re being aggressively suggestive though. (What they’re not going to do is suggest that people sequester themselves or tune out and become socially insulated with their iPods, even if that may happen.) By choosing to have silhouettes I think they’re trying to be representational on several levels.  By obscuring the facial features, we get the ‘every person’ effect where we can forget about looking at an actor we might recognize and instead think about them as an object (one that we might imagine ourselves embodying).  But the second thing I think they’re trying to do is to emphasize the portability of the device.  You might not really dance while hooked up to your earbuds, but you might do some other physical task with it.  So the dancing is merely suggestive – since it might be too much to try to illustrate all the physical uses with such a portable device, why not create a strong association between the iPod and highly kinetic and energetic physical motion?

I think the campaign is brilliant.  It seems to me for a long time now, that most people I know will most likely have a kinetic experience with music through dance.  Far more unusual would be fingers on strings, or on a keyboard, or in really playing the drums.  Maybe singing, but only in situations deemed socially appropriate.

For a while now, I’ve had mixed feelings about this lack of physicality and active involvement in making music.  I’ve been torn between thinking something is seriously wrong or seriously right.  On the one hand, less emphasis on needing to practice an instrument to make music (i.e. musica practica) means more people can take part in music through letting a machine do the playing.  Electronic Dance Music advocates have been saying this for decades.*  On the other hand, are we collectively losing out on far more active, enabling, and challenging experiences by choosing to press the play button instead of practicing scales?

Portable music players like the iPod allow for new useful practices to emerge, such as the privately tailored workout mix designed to keep a pace up while running.  It permits an active but private experience to drape one’s environment with a soundtrack.  I also enjoy how the privacy suggested by the design is ironically overcome with collective iPod dance parties or awkwardly shared earbuds.  Here’s a video of a social mp3 experiment by Improv Everywhere:

What do you think about the iPod?  On the whole, is it a good thing, or is it not?  Or are these even the right questions?


*Ben Neill, “Pleasure Beats: Rhythm and the Aesthetics of Current Electronic Music,” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 12, Pleasure (2002), pp. 3-6:

Minimalism changed art music radically in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely by reintroducing the beat and repetitive structures into the abstract complexity of 1950s serialism and chance-based works. Art music became physical again, connected to pleasure through the visceral elements of world-and popular-music influences. (p. 3)

One of the key ideas to come out of recent electronic pop culture is the “rave” sensibility in which the traditional notions of performer and audience are completely erased and redefined. In this type of event, the artists are not the center of attention; instead it is the role of the artist to channel the energy of the crowd and create the proper backdrop for their social interaction. The audience truly becomes the performance, an idea that was explored by the avant-garde for years but did not have the same impact as in the current electronic pop music because of the limited audience for classical avant-garde events. (p. 4)

Pedro Peixoto Ferreira, “When Sound Meets Movement: Performance in Electronic Dance Music,” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 18, Why Live? Performance in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2008) (pp. 17-20). In footnote 11, he mentions two quotes of interest:

Tony Langlois, “Can you feel it? DJs and House Music Culture in the UK,” Popular Music 11, No. 2, 229–238 (1992), also noticed that, in the “event-centered ethos” of EDM, “Recorded music is regarded as a tool for performance rather than a facsimile of one.” “When you make a track for the dance floor,” resumes Brazilian Techno DJ Renato Cohen, “you must not think you are a creative genius boasting your wisdom,” for all you are making is “a tool for others to work with.” Cited in Claudia Assef, Todo DJ já sambou (São Paulo: Conrad, 2003) p. 217.



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