You’re at a party. It’s lame. There’s a laptop in the corner running iTunes, and people are taking turns DJing to try to liven up the crowd. Unfortunately, the guy with the fingerless gloves is hogging the computer, and his circa-1994 drum and bass jams are failing.
Somebody sneaks in when DnB Guy isn’t looking and cues up a track you instantly recognize. Its steady pulse seems scientifically calibrated to produce good vibes, which it very well may have been. You find yourself bending your knees to the beat. The chorus kicks in and all bets are off. Everybody’s on the floor. The party has started.
The next morning, you’re wondering, “What was that song, and why did everybody know it?” Simple: It was in an iPod commercial — an honor that has propelled many an indie band into the mainstream and cemented the iconic status of artists who were already getting attention.
As part of our ongoing coverage of the iPod’s 10th anniversary (see also the disappearing iPod,Steve Jobs’ secret formula, especially our interactive 10-year iPod timeline), we’ve compiled just about every song that’s ever been featured in an iPod commercial into one convenient Spotify playlist.
A few highlights, in chronological order:
Propellerheads — Take California: The one that started it all, this is one of the few instrumental songs Apple has used in an iPod commercial. It’s bouncy enough, but lacking a certain sass and charm that has come to define iPod advertising in more recent years. The commercial itself, featuring a dude goofily dancing around his apartment, is a far cry from the iconic ads that would follow. It’s kind of like finding a video of Barry Bonds playing Little League baseball: The spark is there, but we have a long way to go.
N.E.R.D. — Rock Star (Jason Nevins Remix Edit): The first of the “silhouette” style commercials that the iPod is famous for, this one is impressive in that all of the hallmarks of iPod advertising were basically in place. But N.E.R.D.’s cheesy rap-rock anthem is just too much — it makes me feel like I’m playing a videogame about snowboarding.
Daft Punk — Technologic: In later commercials, Apple would go out of its way to portray the iPod as folksy and organic. Early on, though, the company seemed much more interested in celebrating its sleek high tech-ness. What better way to do that than with one of pop’s all-time-great odes to technology, complete with two dudes in robot costumes?
U2 — Vertigo: Oh man, this song. Another pretty big one, this was the first commercial to silhouette famous musicians, and also the first to target an ostensibly older audience. Most previous iPod ads featured music rooted in hip-hop or dance, while those that did rock featured younger bands (see: Jet, The Vines). With this, Apple set their sights squarely on the hip moms and dads of the music-buying world. Uno, dos, tres, catorce!
The Caesars — Jerk It Out: This might be the archetypal iPod song: relatively unknown band, catchy-as-all-get-out organ riff, dance-y backbeat, sassy vocalist — a perfect formula for an ad soundtrack, and one Apple would repeat many times. With the exception, of course, of that organ.
Bob Dylan — Someday Baby: Then Apple started adding traditional down-home vibes to the iPod commercial pot. This one, featuring a cut from Dylan icon’s 32nd (!) studio album, Modern Times, was the first from the “down home” iPod era. It featured the folk icon sitting on a stool, playing an honest-to-god acoustic guitar, which is a far cry from Daft Punk and N.E.R.D. Taking advantage of Mr. Zimmerman’s nearly pan-cultural appeal, Apple was able to attract cool dads and their college student kids with this single statement.
Paul McCartney — Dance Tonight: This one is notable mostly for featuring the former Beatle, though I honestly don’t even remember seeing this one when it aired in 2007. That’s probably because my memories of iPod commercials that aired that year are dominated by…
Feist — 1234: Leslie Feist is a fabulously nuanced and emotive singer with three solid albums and a string of great collaborations with indie rockers Broken Social Scene under her belt. She shouts rousingly and coos soothingly with equal aplomb. In a different era, she would have conquered the world. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, she will instead be remembered by singing about counting while helping to sell miniature MP3 players. (If not that, it will be from her Sesame Street appearance).
The Ting Tings — Shut Up and Let Me Go: This one actually sounds like it was written for the sole purpose of selling iPods — the “sass” factor that I’ve unscientifically determined to be a key factor in certain ads is through the roof here. Vocalist Katie White shout-sings about her own individuality while the band pounds out four-on-the-floor beats and a spiky guitar part that sounds uncannily like something out of Franz Ferdinand’s playbook. Hey Apple, why not get those guys to do a commercial?
Franz Ferdinand — No You Girls: Oh, right. The post-punk revival OG’s do their thing and they do it well in an ad touting the iPod touch as the “funnest iPod ever.” Not much else to say here. Another match made in advertising heaven.
Miss Li — Bourgeois Shangri-La: This one aired in 2009 and bears the distinction of being the last iPod ad that was absolutely unavoidable. The song perfectly fits an aesthetic developed by Apple over these past 10 years. That coupled with the fact that I saw the commercial many times before I heard the song in any other context means I’ll forever associate it with the iPod nano and its ability to shoot video.
It’s an impressive feat of marketing Apple has pulled off, over these past 10 years of pairing songs with iPods on television. It took music that came with its own inherent narrative and set of associations, and aligned them indelibly with the iPod. I’m sure Miss Li, the last mentioned here, is an artist with her own story and plenty of fans. But to me — and to many others — she’ll always be that singer from the iPod commercial.