Apple’s Counterculture Movement

Apple. Your counterculture headquarters.

Apple. Your counterculture headquarters.

I’ve long held a grudge against Apple’s iPod. There’s really no particularly valid reason (at least, apart from using totally different formats to play music), but I just can’t stand the things. Even when I came into a 2 GB 2nd Gen Nano, I refused to buy into the greatness that is, purportedly, Apple. More specifically, I refused to wear the white earbuds. And I make sure to share this information with anyone who will listen.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was in college and the iPod was just reaching its first apex. Everywhere you looked, people walked around with white earbuds. Even those who had “other” MP3 players wore white earbuds. The white earbuds were symbolic of something different, something new and unique. I quickly began to see it as a style-over-substance product, and dismissed it as such.

Fast forward to today and not much has changed – white earbuds are still something of a status symbol (though not nearly as much so), and the iPod continues to dominate the market, largely because of creative, teen-focused marketing. White earbuds are now the standard – being different requires something newer (typically, DJ headphones). I watched an interview on the local news recently, and the woman being interviewed about potentially losing her job at Microsoft was wearing her white earbuds as she talked. A Microsoft employee caught red-handed using an Apple product.

All of this leads me to my main observation: what began as a counterculture movement (white earbuds as opposed to those black, over-the-head headphones) has quickly become the cultural norm. Apple has long been the company espousing “different;” so much so, in fact, that it became their slogan – “Think Different.” As time has worn on, however, it has become clear that Apple is no longer countercultural. They are just cultural. The advocates of Apple being different (and consequently better) than PC’s still make this point. Case in point: their marketing campaign built on characterizing PC’s as the stodgy business geek, while the Mac is characterized as the “cool” guy in town. But if it’s the cool guy that is the Mac that would make him mainstream, wouldn’t it?

As is nearly always the case, the phenomenon of counterculture fades. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the counterculture becomes the mainstream. Look at the hippie movement (now called the “green” movement). Look at the mainstreaming of hip-hop. And look at Apple. In order to be “different,” now, one has to move away from the white earbuds. Being different in 2009 means wearing something other than the white earbuds – black and gold DJ headphones, perhaps.

When something becomes mainstream it also loses it’s cachet with the “different” crowds. Though the majority of the culture now accepts what used to be “different,” not everyone approves. Hip hop is a perfect example of this. It used to be that hip-hop was the devil’s music (like rock and roll before it). Then, it grew in popularity until hip-hop was embedded in mainstream music. Now I often hear students (and peers) point out that they don’t listen to “mainstream” rap; they only listen to underground. This is different, this is unique, this is countercultural, and therefore more desirable.

At least, until it becomes “mainstream” and the next counterculture movement grows…


2 responses to “Apple’s Counterculture Movement

  • Leroy Hurt

    Isn’t that Hegelian: thesis + anthithesis = synthesis. For a classic example of the counterculture becoming the establishment, read the Wikipedia entry on Jerry Rubin.

  • Dana Huff

    Goofy sidenote: I love my iPhone (and I’m a total Apple convert), but the white earbuds hurt my ears, so I bought headphones meant for children and wear those. I’m not sure where that puts me.

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