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‘Baby Driver’ sparks iPod nostalgia, and we’re here to talk about it

Ansel Elgort as Baby in 'Baby Driver' | TriStar Pictures

If you saw Baby Driver and dreamt of a click wheel, you’re not alone. Since the Edgar Wright-directed movie opened on June 28, $76 million worth of people have watched a young man called Baby (a drawling, versatile Ansel Elgort) thumb through his various iPods, land on the perfect song, and pull off thrill-packed getaway driving. Normally, action movies don’t have a huge impact on the music world, but this one has sparked a cultural surge of iPod nostalgia (plus a need for speed in people driving home). After seeing the movie, writers Cecilia Johnson and Jay Gabler discussed MP3s vs. streaming, their first iPods, and where we go from here.

Cecilia Johnson: So when was the last time you used an iPod?

Jay Gabler: I had an iPod touch that I used occasionally until I got an iPhone in about 2010. The 2000s were really the decade of the iPod. I got a first-gen iPod when it came out — and it was totally magical, except that the hard drive was frustratingly sensitive to jolts.

CJ: My first iPod was an orange fourth-gen Nano that would start playing music on shuffle if you shook it, and I used iPod Touches, almost in place of a smartphone, up until last year.

JG: Nice. So when we decided to do this, we were both working on thinkpieces about MP3 nostalgia. What points were you going to make?

CJ: I kept coming back to the question, “What if embracing streaming means turning our backs on music we’ve loved?”

Because, y’know, Spotify has gained a lot of cred for pioneering “Discover Weekly,” the weekly-updating playlist that might know you better than you know yourself. Apple Music wasn’t that far behind with their version of the feature. Currently, Spotify’s “Browse” homepage is almost wall-to-wall new music, with tabs ranging from “Charts” to “New Releases” to “Discover.”

When I started playing around with Discover Weekly and its sibling “Release Radar,” my mind was blown. I found Kiiara via the former playlist and listened to her a lot in early 2016. The never-ending stream of new music was a big reason I decided to buy Spotify Premium about a year ago.

But while traveling last month, I pulled out my 32GB sixth-gen iPod Touch and stumbled upon a ton of albums I’d totally forgotten about: Charli XCX’s True Romance from 2013, U2’s The Unforgettable Fire from 1984, and many more. I knew most of them intimately, which is more than I can say for my relationship with a revolving door of singles now.

I’m wondering whether the focus on new music (in the option-filled ocean of content) has turned our attention so far from old favorites that we music lovers have lost our anchors.

JG: I agree that MP3 nostalgia is in part a nostalgia for limited choice. Any music fan who grew up before the streaming era has relationships with albums that it’s unclear whether future generations will have. I listened to Tina Turner’s Break Every Rule a million times — back in the ’80s cassette era — because yeah, it was a great album (I’ll stand by that), but also because I had limited options. Options were obviously wider in the MP3 era, but there was still a sense of having to choose your selections carefully, because you couldn’t just switch to any other album in the world whenever you felt like it. In Baby Driver, he has different iPods loaded with different selections for various situations. I don’t know how many people actually took things that far back in the day, but it definitely takes you back to the days of having to load your iPod carefully for, say, a road trip or a walk through town.

CJ: Right, I only heard Hall & Oates’ greatest-hits album over and over because it was one of the 75 CDs my mom owned. I actually re-bought it a couple of months ago to play in my tape-less, AUX-less car.

I just read that according to director Edgar Wright, Baby has so many iPods because he jacks them from each car he boosts (apparently people leave their iPods in their car. Is that a thing?). That way, he’s exposed to all sorts of genres and eras through other people’s tastes. Hard to say he doesn’t get to know them pretty intimately that way.

JG: Sure, and he has the emotional connection to the object because he was listening to an iPod during a big moment in his life (I’ll be vague to avoid spoilers). Plus, a loaded iPod is off the grid, unlike a streaming phone. No one wants to have their heist busted because they logged on to stream their Release Radar.

Even if you don’t activate the social-sharing functions on your streaming account, there’s an intimacy to listening via MP3 — you’re not pulling the song from anywhere, you’re literally holding it in your hand. My sister, who’s six years younger than me, still buys downloads because she likes that feeling of ownership.

I think it’s important to remember that the iPod era was also the Napster/kAzAa/etc. era. Everyone (um, except me, no really, I swear) remembers making those rare finds on file-sharing sites, and you’d treasure those digital files with all their weird inconsistencies. It was like buying bootleg tapes or CDs, except you paid in frayed nerves instead of dollars.

CJ: Riiight, figuratively, I’d store up demos and underground remixes and rare covers (Florence + the Machine doing Drake, for example). Then I’d spend hours messing with metadata and adding album art to best organize the files.

Avoiding piracy is another huge reason I switched from MP3s to Spotify. If you’re going to enjoy the same amount of music via iPod as you would for the price of Spotify Premium ($10/month), you’ll need to rely on torrenting or ripping CDs — none of which directly pays artists. Paying for a legal service lessened the piracy guilt pangs.

But shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable for the fact that streaming also exploits musicians? From Taylor Swift to Prince, artists have made no secret of the underpayment and injustice that streaming services dish. At this point, I’m wondering if paying for streaming is any more ethical than stealing music.

(Watch me struggle between wanting limited options and unlimited options.)

JG: Well, look at it this way: the MP3 era saw record-industry revenue absolutely tank, after decades of rising. We’re still a long way from the late-90s peak, but last year finally saw a notable uptick — thanks to streaming revenue. There’s still a lot that needs to get figured out on the streaming side, but for now, services are struggling with pricing — given that $120, while a modest amount for serious music fans like those of us who used to spend several hundred dollars a year on CDs, is historically more than the average music consumer has paid. So there needs to be a new balance, and my guess is that variable-rate pricing is the way of the future. The bottom line, for me, is that streaming has the potential to be the most equitable means of income yet — you can adjust payment by number of streams, and there’s the potential (again, right now just the potential) for the kind of transparency that artists have never seen from record labels and distributors.

CJ: Transparency doesn’t seem to be in the cards, though, at least according to one article on CASH Music. It explains the ways Sony, Warner, and Universal push their music on Spotify without the average consumer really noticing, and it digs into implications of “Sponsored Songs” as payola. There totally is transparency potential, but the cynic in me says that in this business, we’ll never see it fulfilled.

And I’m wondering about how the budget connotation of being a “serious music fan” differs by age. At 22, I’d say $120 is the most I’ve ever spent on recorded music per year (as opposed to live music, for which I’ve dropped much more). I don’t imagine many of my music-enamored friends — recent grads, mostly, worrying about health insurance in an unfriendly rent market — have paid much more. Even casual listeners in our generation grew up with YouTube access, rampant file-sharing, and tech workarounds for anyone who tried to stop us.

I guess it’s time I have to wrap my brain around variable-rate pricing. It’s hard for me not to see a pay-per-stream system as punitive, because obviously, at this point it negatively affects the people who stream the most music. I feel like I’d put a consumption budget on myself — same way someone who pays for their own water bill needs to worry about how long their showers are (I’d rather pay a higher rent with utilities included).

JG: Bringing up the money question leads to a key way in which MP3 nostalgia, to the extent it exists, differs from vinyl or even cassette nostalgia. One reason the vinyl boom has become such a meaningful part of the music industry is that it’s been promoted by artists and labels — who can turn substantial profits on record sales. One reason the CD era was so profitable for the industry is that a lot of baby boomers essentially replicated their record collections, thus paying twice for the same music. In the new vinyl boom, a lot of fans are buying records that they also stream assiduously. It’s hard to imagine MP3 nostalgia being monetized by anyone but Apple — who could conceivably sell retro iPods — although eMusic just relaunched with the bet that there’s still a substantial market for downloads, especially if they’re DRM-free.

CJ: And it’s interesting Baby Driver has not, as far as I’ve noticed, been marketed as an “iPod movie” or “MP3 nostalgia” movie. It’s certainly been interpreted as such. But the first things I heard about it were “car chases” and “good music.”

JG: Yeah, I don’t think Baby Driver is going to be the High Fidelity of its generation. I’ll be curious to see whether MP3 nostalgia surfaces elsewhere…will bands start releasing albums on self-contained MP3 players? Will the iPod go back into production?

CJ: And how many people are surfing Ebay for old iPods after seeing the movie?

JG: I’m thinking this might just be a cinematic flicker, but time will tell.