On How Apple And Technology Are Cultural Unifiers, Like Rock’n’Roll Once Was

In the ’60s, while no doubt a lot of schlock went to the Top o’ the Pops, it was far more likely than it is today that the greatest bands sold the most records.  The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence — they made the best records and they sold the most too.  Maybe this is looking backwards through gauze, but it seems that the anomaly, not the rule, is the case of The Velvet Underground — whose first record, released the same week as Sgt. Pepper’s, influenced perhaps more great music over time but ended up in the remainder bins.  They proved to be as much or more culturally relevant than any of the bands that sold 100x more records than they did, but theirs was a 1960s example that otherwise proves the rule.  Bands with great records but small followings became the norm as time went on, but it sure wasn’t the way things worked in those halcyon days when rock critics and the masses they might look down on all grokked to the same bands.

Flash forward to the ’80s and when asked what she thought of “alternative bands,” Madonna could sneer,”Oh, you mean unpopular music?”  By that time, it was axiomatic that the best bands were not the ones that sold the most records — that the bands that mattered were the ones with small followings, not large ones.  Sure, in those days and since, there were exceptions, and we cheered them on: U2, REM, Nirvana, Radiohead… well, we start to run out of examples of truly great bands that became arena sell-out huge.  Each of these bands at certain moments were both wildly popular with the masses and with critics.  But these are the exceptions, not the rule, not like things were in the 1960s when there was a commonality to what the elites thought was the best and what sold in the marketplace.

Flash to last night when The Black Keys played at the Verizon Center in Washington, and were awesome.  One of those happy moments when a band that is as interesting as any working band today could actually sell out an 18,000 seat hall.  As we looked around us, one thing was clear: virtually everyone texting his friend, or tweeting their experience, was using an iPhone.  This cut across obvious socioeconomic planes.  And it got me to thinking.  About how Apple’s products are the most desirable products for the elites who care about technology and what it can do, as well as for the mass of people who just want products that deliver.  Devices, not the music we play on them, are the things that unite us culturally today.  I mean, the closest thing I can think of to the excitement of waiting for the arrival of the new iPad is that feeling from long ago, when we were waiting for Exile On Main Street to hit the record stores.  I know I’m not the only who feels this way.

By the early 1970s, there was a gulf in popular culture, a delta between, say, bands like Big Star, who knocked the critics dead but sold 1000 records, and those huge bands, like say The Eagles, who churned out gold records.  In rock’n’roll, that gulf has not narrowed in 40 years, and seems to get wider all the time.  In contrast, when it comes to technology in general and Apple products in particular, the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi are as one.  Not everyone can afford iPhones, though the subsidy by the mobile operators do make it more possible.  Yet across the globe, the technology elites and the wealthiest people cannot buy a device that is better than the one that everyone else wants: an iPhone.  And there is something democratically pleasing about the arrangement by which Saudi sheiks and kids in Kentucky are using the exact same phone, and are equally thrilled to get one.

Is the famous counterculture acidhead and drop out Steve Jobs responsible for recreating one more aspect of ’60s idealism today: unifying the culture, not via common music, but through common use of technology and devices?

One Response to “On How Apple And Technology Are Cultural Unifiers, Like Rock’n’Roll Once Was”

  1. That’s a bingo.

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