Culture

Steve Jobs, Pop Artist

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Many have said that Apple lovers are a cult and the late Steve Jobs was its cult leader. No rational person, they say, would pay that much for a tablet or a laptop or a mouse when the alternatives were so much better and cheaper. I would argue, however, that this outpouring of grief and emotion and reflection shows Apple as less a cult than a producer of pop culture. Pop culture is polarizing, world-reaching, and often burns brightest for far too short a time. Steve Jobs, then, was a less an inventor and more an artist, a creator akin to Bono, Miles Davis, or Annie Leibovitz. You can argue as to the various merits of each of those artists and that’s the point: you’ll never win.

I had been thinking about this concept for the past few weeks – especially after the break-up of R.E.M. – and now that Jobs is gone I noticed a feeling in myself akin to the loss of a source of great pleasure and dare I say pride. I was proud to be a member of a huge fan base and I was proud that we had all made this decision for similar reasons, especially when reflecting on the values and quality espoused in Jobs’ mission.

It can be argued that Apple took current technologies – MP3-playing DSPs, LCDs, touchscreens – and simply mixed them in different ways. Everything Apple has done can be seen in other devices that came before them. The iPod is a just an Archos Jukebox. The iPhone is just a Blackjack. The Macbook Air isn’t new: there was a Sony laptop much smaller and lighter back in 2000!

But that synthesis is the very definition of pop culture. It can be argued that Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Robert Plant stole from black urban and white country culture, stole the blues and jazz and folk from the poor and splashed it up on the stage like the flim flam artists they were. But it must be accepted that these three men and the artists in their cohort changed music forever by taking liberally from all musical forms and producing a more catholic, richer form of musical expression than anyone had a right to expect.

Then, we return to the concept of the cult in pop culture. There are plenty of people out there who love Katy Perry and there are plenty of people out there who hate her. Transpose Katy Perry with anyone else (Coldplay would be my personal choice. I’m baffled by them.) and you have the same result. The important point is that popularity doesn’t increase the fans or non-fans on any one side, but it instead grows the whole group. In a Venn diagram, the increasing popularity of a band doesn’t grow the fans circle. Instead, it grows both circles nearly equally and they sometimes overlap. You can hate Coldplay but love “Yellow.” You can hate Apple but love the iPhone.

Neither the fans nor non-fans are “right” in any sense of the word. Those who love Andy Warhol and those who hate him will never see eye-to-eye. Those who love iOS will never see why people like Android. It will be thus forever.

Therefore, Apple and Jobs brought something to technology that it didn’t have before he began – irrationality. There is no good reason to love a Mac Pro over a Windows gaming rig – both have approximately the same specs. But there is also no reason to like the Decemberists over Sufjan Stevens but I, personally, can’t stand the that Sufjan guy.

Finally, Steve Jobs was a perfectionist akin to a musician, director, or writer. Nothing was ever good enough until it was. You’ll note D.B. Grady starts his panegyric in the Atlantic talking about Kubrick’s precise direction. Compare this with the iteration cycle of most products. Motorola and RIM will dump a half-baked product onto the market and hope it sticks. If it doesn’t, there’s always next CES, or next CTIA, or the next press release. These guys are like the Spin Doctors – they make a hit, play it incessantly, and many people like it. Then you see them on stage and the lead singer is drunk as a lord and about to puke on the mic and you’re like “I think these Third Eye Blind guys are a little cooler.”

Apple, on the other hand, is like an old Pink Floyd stage show: sure, the flying pigs sometimes get away from them, but man if those lasers aren’t cool and they were en pointe the entire time. Jobs is akin to James Brown, fining musicians who messed up and creating an army of experienced, skilled session musicians in the process. Sure, everyone can make great music and in the end you come away with vaguely the same feeling but the quality of each experience is vastly different.

Apple raised the conversation away from megahertz and kernels to the plane of “It just works.” This refusal to bend to consumer will that most defines Apple is a product of pop culture rather than a technology company. Think of Radiohead’s recent produce: they’ve changed everything, thrice over, but they are pushing music to a new edge. “No Surprises” is as much different from “15 Step” as the original iMac is from the Macbook Air. But all of these derive from the same goal – to push the state of the art at the time, whether it be the hard electronic and mechanical arts or the “soft” liberal and aesthetic arts.

Apple is not a cult: they’re a band or a collective or an artists’ colony. Just like a band they think about money, logistics, engineering, and succession. They had a great leader and they’ll have another and another. In the end, then, Apple fans have a strong defense and Apple detractors are also right, in their way. But, as Shakespeare noted, “the man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.”