Apple, U2 and the Importance of Letting Us Choose Which Music to Subjectively Despise

Music is subjective. It is deeply personal. And this is why the Apple-U2 debacle is so weird. Because it feels like Apple forgot how important this stuff actually is.

That music is by its nature subjective is the only thing standing in the way of the otherwise objective fact that U2 are awful.

If you're being kind, you might say Bono et al are just stuck in the latter stages of the awkward late 40s-50s gauntlet that all big rock bands enter on their way to Rolling Stones post-cool Glasto Headliner rock status. (Smashing Pumpkins just entered the gauntlet, REM died en-route, while Iron Maiden just emerged, bleeding but alive.) If you were not worried about being kind, you might say that U2 are just a bit crap.

Except that - remember? - music is subjective. It is deeply personal.

Any discussion of it is highly charged and layered with subtext, and memories of festivals-where-we-met, and poorly timed album releases that came out just as you realised 'mainstream isn't cool', and well before you remembered that actually it is sometimes.

So yes, I don't like U2. I hate everything they've ever recorded. By definition I am in the vast majority of the record buying public. Most people don't buy Adele albums, or watch The Inbetweeners, or Premier League football either.

But I am also, by definition, only speaking for myself. Meaning? All personal music preferences are pointless fluff. But they are also critical to the personal self-image of anyone who has ever truly loved music, which numbers roughly all currently and previously living humans.

And this is why the Apple-U2 debacle is so weird. Because it feels like Apple forgot how important this stuff actually is.

My record collection - whether it's a stack of vinyl, a recently played list on Spotify, my Google Play Music library or the stuff on my iPhone - is a curated menu of my life's travels, victories, defeats, relationships and beliefs. It comprises the songs I listen to when I go running in the rain (Andrew WK), when I contemplate the quiet beauty of the world (Andrew WK) and the songs I want played at my funeral ('Ready To Die' and 'I Get Wet' by Andrew WK). There are even some non-Andrew WK tracks in there too.

This has always been true. Music collections, as Nick Hornby illustrated, have been an occasionally self-destructive obsession for almost everyone for decades (or centuries).

But in the modern world, where an increasing amount of music is instantly disposed of with an automatic cache flush after it's finished streaming, the music I choose to actually own is even more selective, and carefully chosen. If I buy an album, or even just add it to my current service of choice from a CD or fractured iTunes Library, I have made a conscious decision to carry it with me at all times. To have it visible and public to any person who may care flick through my Music app. I have given it a ticket to ride with me, together through life.

I did not choose U2 to come on that ride. But as of last Tuesday, there they are, with all of us, uninvited, crowding out my Two Gallants bootlegs and Nicki Minaj albums.

So what's to be done?

There has of course been a backlash - leading to Apple releasing a tool to permanently delete the album from a library. Some of it has been way over the top.

There has also been a backlash to the backlash - caused mainly by the mistaken belief that criticising patently over-the-top online anger is anything other than shooting the wrong fish in a leaky barrel, simply to ignore the genuine, though less fervently felt, irritation among the mostly silent majority of iTunes users. (Nailed it.)

The simple response here is that Apple should have chosen an opt-in mechanism, fine, but they've made it easy to delete, no big deal.

But the more interesting, and disturbing thing to take from this is that Apple appears to have forgotten something very important about the fundamental value of music.

It was something Steve Jobs articulated well in his 2007 letter on DRM-free music. It was also something implicit in the promise of the original iPod - the last true version of which coincidentally was killed immediately after the U2 announcement was made: 1,000 songs in your pocket.

Your songs. Your pocket.

I was 18 when I got my first iPod - a third generation 15 GB model. My iTunes library was mine and mine alone. I loved and knew every song on it. When I accidentally crushed it under the back leg of a stool at my University library, I felt physical pain in my chest. My iPod was music to me.

I never put U2 on my iPod. I hate U2. My iPod hated U2 as well. Apple could release as many U2-editions as it wanted - my iPod thought Bono was a wally. We laughed about it behind his back. It was brilliant.

Now my iPhone is something else - a portal to apps, work, video, email, adverts and occasionally other people. It's a device for listening to Spotify, Google Music and Deezer. I make as much music on it as I listen to. But whatever else comes and goes on my iPhone, the Music app still sits there on the dock, containing my master list of emergency albums, songs and playlists. Some date back to my 2002 iPod. I love them. They are digital files, identical in form to millions of others. But they are mine.

We may live in a world where recorded music has so little monetary value to be first hypothetically, then philosophically and finally commercially free.

We may listen to more music interspersed with Channel 4 commercials on Spotify than we do on turntables and £40,000 speakers.

But we still listen to the music we choose, and carry around the music we love. And primarily, we still choose Apple devices to do it on.

The U2 deal wasn't just badly handled, it ran in contravention to that trust, and the personal connection between us and Apple.

So no, the U2 giveaway isn't worth getting angry about. It's fixable and trivial to remove the album (which I did not enjoy, in case you were wondering) from your phone. But it should also serve as a warning to Apple that its rhetoric on personal devices, fashion and customisation doesn't just extend to watch straps - it still applies to music too.


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