Joe Dimuzio: The imperfect legacy of Steve Jobs

By Joe Dimuzio, Daily Music Columnist
Published October 9, 2011

Shall we canonize the man already? At this point, Steve Jobs has already been hailed as a “secular prophet” in The Wall Street Journal, been blessed with iPhone vigils and enjoyed a week-long social media hashtag eulogy. From 12-year-olds on Facebook to Barry Obama, the nation’s basking in the backlit glow of reminiscence without much of a second thought. Steve Jobs, bless you.

But like for any iconic figure, death has a nasty way of obscuring the real impact of someone like Jobs, who, in many ways, forever changed the way we listen to music. At this point, public discourse on Jobs doesn’t escape “What a guy!” We’re the munchkins chanting, “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” (not to imply that Jobs is a menace, by any means) without really bothering to explain why we cared much about her in the first place.

Jobs’s influence is undoubtedly enormous, and its implications are a bit tougher to hash out. His effect on the world of home computing is double-edged. On one hand, he led the wave of home computing innovation with affordable, stylish and user-friendly technology. On the other, he built the company into the opposite of what it promised in 1984 — creating uniform machines for the masses, that forbade any form of internal customization while assuring you of your creativity. Jobs made us slaves to the Apple Store, the brand and relentless planned obsolescence.

I’m not going to pore over the gray areas of Jobs's career, which Mike Daisey’s op-ed in the New York Times last week effectively handled. One need only look up Foxconn to tarnish some of the saintly fluorescent glow Apple commands. I’m not going to expound on his quiet love of LSD, his sober acceptance of death or the devastation of pancreatic cancer.

I’m focused, as ever, on the musical side of things. And when it comes to the world of music, Jobs is more Alexander the Great than Mother Teresa.

Apple’s monopolization of the MP3 and the subsequent market dominance of iTunes and the iPod are hallmarks of Jobs’s impact. They completely changed the way Americans engage, listen to and share popular music. He’s the man who deemed a song’s worth one dollar (raising it after we affirmed his judgment) and gave us the chance to put libraries in our pockets. The iPod let us wear music as our personal badge of identification, one click wheel away.

This consolidation afforded new avenues of portability, sharing and ease of access. It also promoted ignorance — making iTunes a musical gatekeeper and rewarding the commitment to a sole arbiter of taste and availability. A generation (or two?) has grown accustomed to the compressed, unbalanced mastering of songs tailor-made for uncomfortable earbuds. Jobs generated greater hype for the machines we used than the music we consumed with them.

The innovations that Apple and Jobs made in the world of recorded music remain accessories to the music. They remain, however stylish and pervasive, means of consumption.

When does the means become the music itself? The terribly compressed song we play on repeat looking out a subway window, the mistitled track on some burned disc we gave our ex (who we never even loved), the playlist we craft to keep us from realizing we are too tired to keep running … for so many people, Apple became the music itself. Recorded music remains the primary source through which we engage in music, however far away, however compressed, however slick, stylized and priced.

Typing this column on a Mac in my bedroom, I am surrounded by outmoded technology. A CD player. A turntable. A Sony minidisc recorder. My iPod, scratched and finger-smudged, sits on my desk. In 30 years, it will be another gadget. Another punchline of consumer electronic obsolescence. For now, whatever attractive plastic machine sways my wallet in the future exists in exactly that — the future. And free of that, the music, in a thousand years’ time, will always remain. Mr. Jobs, his incredible vision and his technology will not.